The Dilemmas, Contradictions, and Excitements of Being a Foundation Program Officer

Vuyiswa Sidzumo

This post first appeared on the Africa Grantmakers’ Affinity Group website. It was published following the release of the CEP report, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success.

Let me begin by stating the obvious. I love being a foundation program officer. I’ve worked for private foundations for almost 13 years, and it has been a blast. Not only has it given me the privilege to support some of the best, brightest, and committed people in the social change space, but it has taught me humility, patience, and the ability to see the bigger picture.

“Support” is an intentionally loaded word in this context. The first part is recommending financial support to organizations, but equally important are the relationships formed with institutions, which often require my skills, knowledge, and experience, and access to my networks. These are the contradictions that have led me to this reflection.

When people talk about private foundation program officers, the default is to talk about the power relations that often play out, real or perceived. I don’t for a moment doubt that power is an issue in some relationships. But I think what is often lost in these conversations are the deep relationships that, in my experience, develop between foundation program officers and grantee organizations. What is also missing in these conversations are the dilemmas and contradictions that foundation program officers often face in not only being responsible stewards of other people’s money but social change agents who also have an agenda for people’s lives to improve. How this plays out in real life is an interesting mix of experiences.

If I look back at the past 12 years of being a program officer, I can safely say that I would have gone insane if I reacted to every criticism. This does not suggest that I am thick-skinned, but my experience has taught me that the most important thing to do as a program officer is to develop deep and trusting relationships with grantees, and the rest often follows.  This is, however, easier said than done. In an ideal world, program officers should have a manageable number of grants to enable them to form these relationships and to contribute meaningfully and thoughtfully to the work of partners. In the real world, program officers often manage many grants (which can also be an advantage), and it is often difficult to dedicate sufficient time to nurture relationships.

When deep relationships are formed, as I’ve found in my experience, it is often easier to determine the nature of support that an organization requires from a foundation program officer. Some organizations prefer a hands-off approach, while others appreciate the knowledge of program officers and find it useful for their work and the growth of their organizations. The relationships are often complex, and it is therefore difficult and unfair to judge program officers and accuse them of interfering in organizations’ affairs if there is no real understanding of these relationships and what is valued by either party. The challenge is that these relationships are often not explicit, but are nuanced and fluid.  As a program officer, I’ve often found myself in these dilemmas. I’ve often refused to participate in organizations’ strategic planning processes, as I’ve felt that I can’t be referee and player at the same time. But when organizations genuinely appreciate these inputs, is it fair for me to turn them down? Am I a spoilsport or a responsible steward in these circumstances? My view is that the answer is somewhere in between.

A series of events have left me pondering the ideal role of foundation program officers. Over the years, I’ve interacted with several organizations that have very important social issues to tackle, but weak leadership that compromised their ability to realize their aims. In a few instances where things went wrong, the organizations had directors who were not the right fit for the institutions, and ineffective boards that were unfortunately not able to deal decisively with the problem, even when warning signs were there. This led to the reversal of gains that these organizations had made over long periods of time and loss of trust from key stakeholders.

In these instances, this sadly compromised the ability of these institutions to deliver on their mandates, and funders voted with their feet. As one colleague put it, rather than dealing with the elephant in the room, people in these organizations were “killing each other with kindness.” As part of due diligence, it is my duty to pronounce on the ability of an organization to fulfill its stated promise, yet these experiences have left me drained and forced me to question my role in the value chain of social change. I could not, with a clear conscience, motivate for further support to these institutions. As someone who is not only a foundation employee but is also based in my country of origin, with a deeply vested interest in good and successful programs and organizations, this has been hard.

Regardless of my relationships with grantee organizations, I feel strongly that it is not my business to determine who they hire and fire. However, I am duty-bound to assess risk. In these cases, I felt an obligation to communicate my concerns to the boards of these organizations, while not telling them what to do. My duty was to inform them that with the apparent risks, I could not motivate for further support. This, however, did not stop the little voice in my head that said whatever I wanted to believe, these conversations held a lot of power. As the foundations I’ve worked for are among the biggest funders of these organizations, I felt I was pushing the boards against brick walls. Yet, what choice did I have? In some cases, the directors stayed and eventually left when funds dried up. In a strange and possibly twisted way, their refusal to take a hint made me feel better. I had not pushed the people away, but I had also made the difficult but necessary decision to do what I thought was best for my foundations. I had maintained my good relationships with the boards and even the people involved by taking them into my confidence and expressing my concerns, as they deserved a decent explanation about why my foundation could not continue to support them. They appreciated my inputs, but may not have agreed with me. In these cases, events that followed confirmed that I was justified to be concerned.

In these cases, I felt it was important to be open and transparent with the organizations. The deep relationships that had been formed over the years made this possible, but it did not make my job of conveying the bad news any easier. These are often my contradictions as a foundation program officer. How far do I go and how far can I go? What about my own desire and passion for social change? Do I put that aside even when organizations appear to be failing the very communities they purport to serve? Do I keep quiet when I observe dysfunctionality in organizations? I don’t think so, yet that does not make me feel any better when people leave organizations or even lose their jobs.

I think more healthy conversations between foundation staff and grantee organizations about these complex roles are necessary. I don’t have spaces where I can talk to a group of people who get it, both from the foundation and nonprofit organization world. I don’t think this is a conversation that foundation program officers should have on their own (as is often the case), but I think there should be more conversations between foundation program officers and grantee representatives about playing this fine line as delicately and effectively as possible. I don’t think we will ever get it completely right in every instance, but it is something worth investing in and being conscious of. Contrary to popular belief, most foundation program officers are not people who are power hungry and are out to make people’s lives miserable, but they also must assess risks for their organizations and ensure that impact is achieved.

In my role as a program officer, I also try, in the best way possible, to protect the interests of beneficiaries by asking the right questions. As we all know, beneficiaries often have no say in how programs are designed, and how organizations determine priorities for them. A conversation about the power relations between nonprofit organizations and beneficiaries is another that deserves attention, but that is a topic for another day.

In summary and to be true to the topic, this is my take:

  • Dilemmas – How far can I go in being supportive of the work of organizations when things are not going right? In cases where the problems relate to systems and staff challenges not at the top, the conversation tends to be easier. Organizations welcome support from foundations, and work hard to realign their institutions to maximize impact. When the challenges are at the top, the conversations are more difficult and tricky, and often require making difficult but necessary choices.
  •  Contradictions – How do you stay true to your foundation’s purpose and your own obligations to assess and manage risk, while also possibly destabilizing institutions by being honest? For program officers, this is a difficult balance, but one that we have no choice but to play. We must accept that in these cases, we will be blamed for unequal power relations.
  • Excitements – Healthy relationships between program officers and grantee organizations are exciting and can be powerful. They help strengthen institutions and often lead to sustained social change. Often these relationships require maturity and a good chemistry. When there are changes at either institution, this often sets the clock back as new relationships need to be formed. When program officers understand organizations, they are supportive, sympathetic in times of change, and have a deep understanding of the issues.  They are also able to exercise the patience and flexibility often required in realizing social change.

Even with all these challenges, I still love being a foundation program officer. I always strive to be respectful, patient, understanding, and flexible. I also always need to be alert, cautious, questioning, knowledgeable, and connected not only to the organizations, but the fields I work in as well. It continues to be an exciting space for me, and while I may never reach perfection, I do my best to strive for it.

Vuyiswa Sidzumo is a program officer in the Ford Foundation South Africa Office and chair of the Africa Grantmakers’ Affinity Group Steering Committee.

foundation staff/program officers, funder/grantee relationships, Program Officer effectiveness, program officers, relationships matter, research
Previous Post
Building a Mindset of Inclusion
Next Post
Listening Carefully: An Argument for Considering All the Data

Related Blog Posts