Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Those of us who fly for business and/or pleasure are familiar with flight attendants alerting us to what happens if cabin pressure decreases. We are told that oxygen masks will deploy and that we are to “secure our own mask before assisting others.” This analogy has been applied to numerous situations outside of aviation and it may also be appropriate when thinking about how program officers work most effectively with grantees.

CEP’s report, Working Well With Grantees: A Guide for Foundation Program Staff, emphasizes the importance of program officers building effective working relationships with grantees. In order for program officers to work effectively with grantees, however, it is important that they have a clear understanding of their own role and responsibilities and that they are continuing to grow and develop.

Many of us in the program officer role have asked questions such as, “what skills do I need to be effective in this job?” and “how can I best develop myself to be effective in this role?” These questions are not unique to program officers; they are critical to the success of any employee in any organization.

While foundation management has a responsibility to clarify roles and responsibilities, program officers can also take the initiative and ask questions about what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. It is helpful to be specific in this process and actually identify the skills and behaviors (sometimes referred to as “competencies”) that are critical to a program officer’s success. Program officers can then work to develop these skills and behaviors.

Working Well With Grantees emphasizes taking advantage of professional development opportunities, which can be done in numerous ways. Foundations sometimes sponsor internal training sessions that focus on topics such as presentation skills or diversity awareness. Program officers may also attend such sessions outside the foundation, with individuals whom they don’t know, in order to learn new perspectives. Either approach can be helpful, depending upon the circumstances. Such training is important to increasing staff effectiveness, which in turn can lead to stronger relationships with grantees.

Participation in conferences is another way for program officers to increase their expertise and enhance the network of individuals with whom they can learn and grow. Moreover, when program officers are involved in organizing a conference session, this enhances project management abilities and communication skills, which are important in working with grantees.

Convening grantees around a topic of interest is not only a way for foundations to provide “support beyond the grant,” but also provides learning opportunities for program officers. As the CEP report suggests, it is important to “understand those you seek to help.” The act of organizing such a meeting allows program officers to learn more about issues, successes, and challenges from the people “in the field,” as well as providing insight about potential collaborative efforts among grantees.

Likewise, convening with other funders around a topic of interest provides another developmental opportunity for program officers. As CEP’s report indicates, learning what other funders are doing and exploring how funders might work together to address an issue not only enhances program officers’ learning, it can also provide a platform for connecting grantees to other sources of funding and/or expertise.

Working Well With Grantees notes the importance of helping grantees understand how well they fit into the foundation’s goals and strategies. Of course, determining and explaining this fit requires that program staff have clarity about what the foundation is trying to achieve. At The Duke Endowment, we have done much work recently to develop theories of change and logic models that plainly lay out our strategies and expected outcomes for each of our grantmaking areas. This has not only helped all of us increase our skills in strategic grantmaking; it also enables us to be more clear and consistent when communicating with our grantees about funding opportunities. Such communication is critical in developing successful working relationships with grantees.

It is also important for interactions within the foundation to foster an internal work environment that reflects how the foundation expects program officers to interact with grantees. CEP’s preliminary analysis in their Employee Empowerment report indicates that there is a correlation between staff satisfaction and grantee satisfaction. CEP’s Staff Perception Report is a helpful tool to gauge how employees perceive their current work environment and to identify changes that may enhance a foundation’s internal culture in a way that could possibly improve external relationships with grantees.

For example, in our organization, the Staff Perception Report indicated a need for more proficiency and comfort in giving, receiving, and asking for feedback. We are planning sessions to discuss how to build these skills. Such skills will not only improve our internal work environment but will also assist program officers in giving (sometimes difficult) feedback to grantees while maintaining a positive relationship with them. After all, if we cannot give and receive feedback effectively with our close colleagues, how are we to do so with grantees and potential grantees?

Finally, it is important for program officers to literally take care of themselves, physically and mentally. Our internal wellness team offers opportunities for staff to improve their health and offers incentives for exercising, weight loss, and smoking cessation. As the CEP report indicates, the program officer role can be stressful, so it is important to find means to mitigate stress.

In the philanthropic world, building effective working relationships with grantees is imperative. Before—and throughout—our work in the field, however, it is important for us as program officers and managers to be clear about our roles, our responsibilities, and the importance of continuing to grow and develop. We won’t be much help to others if we don’t do these things, which is why “securing your own mask before assisting others” is good advice when working with grantees.


Susan McConnell is Director of Human Resources and Director of the Higher Education program area at The Duke Endowment.

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