Staff Quality Matters

On the CEP blog last week and this week, CEP President Phil Buchanan is discussing, in a series of eight posts, recent critiques of large, staffed foundations and assertions that recently-established, “lean” foundations are paving a promising new path without being saddled by “bureaucracy.” The following is the seventh post in the series.

Ask any nonprofit what matters most in their relationship with a foundation and they’ll almost certainly tell you it’s all about the program officer. In analyzing our grantee perceptions dataset, we have seen this powerfully corroborated by the data. On many dimensions of the grantee experience, there is more variation explained statistically by the answer to the question, which program officer was your primary contact? than which foundation funded you?

The abilities of program officers to develop productive relationships with grantees vary widely, as my colleagues and I discussed in this 2007 Stanford Social Innovation Review article.

What we don’t know yet is what specific elements of a program officer’s background, attitude, or skill sets are related to better performance in the eyes of grantees. We’ll be examining this in a future CEP research study. We’ll also seek to look at tenure. If Sean Parker is right and foundation staff seek primarily to build and protect empires — and their jobs — rather than to be effective, as he argued in the Wall Street Journal, we’d expect to see tenure be inversely correlated with grantee perceptions of foundation program staff.

We’ll see.

But what we do know today is that what happens within a foundation’s walls doesn’t stay inside those walls — it is correlated with grantee experience.  In analysis of contemporaneously gathered staff and grantee perceptions at 29 foundations, CEP’s Ellie Buteau and her colleagues found a relationship between staff climate and culture and grantee experience. Our colleague Kevin Bolduc described these findings at the 2015 CEP Conference in May.

For example, when staff feel empowered — as measured by a series of specific survey items covering issues from authority to professional development to team culture — grantees are more likely to see the foundation as clear and consistent in its communication. We see the connection on other dimensions, too, suggesting that it isn’t just the numbers of staff that matter, or the performance of individual staff, but also the overall culture and climate.

This is played out not just in our quantitative analysis but also in the open-ended comments from grantees and staff. For example, at one foundation where staff feel highly empowered, a staff member says, “Staff is provided the resources necessary to complete their work.” Another says, “The staff is encouraged to grow professionally and is empowered to act in the best interest of [the foundation] and the community.” Grantees of this same foundation say, “The [foundation] is the most consistent and transparent of all local foundations” and find staff are “honest, rigorous and entirely professional. They listen well, interact with ease, and communicate effectively.”

On the other end of the spectrum, one staff member whose foundation received comparatively low ratings from its staff on issues of empowerment says, “I feel underemployed, relative to my skills and work experience.” Another employee at the same foundation says, there is “not much top down information sharing. [The foundation] is somewhat departmentalized.” On the other side of the table, a grantee of the same foundation says that it is “hard to work with. Communication is unclear, processes are not transparent, and ‘hidden agendas’ abound.” Another grantee requests “more frequent communication about [the foundation’s] direction, strategies, goals and desired impact.”

It isn’t just the numbers of staff that matter in terms of how a foundation is experienced by those with whom it works. It is the quality of those staff and the culture and climate in which they work. While this may seem patently obvious, it appears that this needs to be said — given the critiques of those who assert, essentially, that foundation staff do not matter.

Find all posts in the series here.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @philCEP.

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