Why Program Officers Should Embrace the Boring

Dana Schmidt

Program officers have a tremendous influence on their grantee’s happiness. CEP’s seminal report on the importance of relationships between program officers and grantees documents that program officers can be a more important determinant of a grantee’s experience than the foundations they work for. As a program officer myself, this is both a relief and a burden. A relief because it means program officers can make a difference to grantees — even if they are situated in institutions that do not have the best policies and practices. A burden because it means our day-to-day choices are all the more important.

Fortunately, there are many great resources available to program officers on how to do their work effectively. The same CEP report provides practical ideas on what highly rated program officers do to build strong relationships with their grantees: they get to know grantee organizations and the context in which they work, they are transparent about their foundation’s processes and strategy, and they remain open to new ideas. The Trust-Based Philanthropy project offers similar principles for program officers to put into practice.

Unfortunately, all of these great resources have failed to change behavior at scale. Why? The gap in putting these into practice is not merely whether an individual program officer knows about better practices. It also is not merely about whether their institution will allow them to do it. Rather, there are deep-seated mindsets and beliefs that tempt program officers into engaging in less supportive behavior.

The tenets of effective philanthropy clash with skills that many program officers have been grooming their entire lives.

  • We are prepared to promote our own ideas, but good philanthropy requires putting money behind ideas that others came up with.
  • We are told to be pioneers, but sticking with a cause long term is necessary for change.
  • We are taught to hold and accumulate power, but effectively supporting grantees requires giving it away.
  • We learn how to come up with answers, when good philanthropy is mostly about asking the right questions.

Thanks to this conditioning, there are days in my role as a program officer where I have personally felt an acute existential crisis: I don’t actually do anything.

When you are conditioned to believe your worth is derived from innovating, coming up with the answer, and promoting your own ideas, following effective philanthropy practices can feel like little more than pushing paper. Sure, some of that “paper” comes in the form of very large checks, but that’s not the same as running programs, doing research, or creating a new venture. People conditioned to be ambitious can find giving grantees unrestricted support year after year, without shaping their programs or work, to be boring — or, worse yet, feel like they are failing if that is “all” that they do.

I know this uneasiness has driven me to engage counterproductively.

For example, I have been tempted to fund my own ideas, contracting them out in the form of a grant. This rarely works. Ideas are most successfully implemented when they are truly owned by the person or organization implementing them.

I have also tried to prove my worth by asking a lot of questions — way too many questions. I have gone through proposals and reports with a fine-tooth comb, trying to catch problems or mistakes. Far from adding value, this generally detracts value. Unless the questions inform your grant decision or helps the grantee improve the work they are doing, answering them creates busy work for organizations and diverts their time and attention away from doing their core work.

If we can name the mindsets getting in our way, we can take steps to overcome them. I have learned four antidotes to the counterproductive approaches ingrained in so much grantmaking work.

  • Cultivate a mindset of enabler, rather than doer. I try to count my grantees’ success as my own. This is not to be confused with taking credit for their success! It simply means taking satisfaction in the small part I played in enabling something meaningful to happen.
  • Focus energy on creating the environment that will allow your grantees to succeed. Although you should not proactively design or manage a grantee’s work, there is plenty of proactive work you can do on their behalf. Advocate internally for the type of support they need. Connect them with other funders. Plug them into your networks.
  • Use your unique vantage point to offer reflections and insights that can inform your grantees’ work. Funders have a field-level perspective that grantees are not always privy to, but we often hold that perspective close to our chest. We commission landscapes that we never share. Spend some energy synthesizing and sharing what you are learning with your grantees — but focus on observing what you see, not telling them what to do.
  • Channel your “doing” instincts elsewhere. Work to shape your foundation’s policies and practices. Spend time influencing other funders. Pursue hobbies outside of work. There are plenty of ways to scratch that itch without meddling with your grantees.

Over the years, I have come to terms with the fact that many elements of my job are (at least in conventional terms) “boring.” But the boring practices of good philanthropy are also the bedrock of building strong organizations, supporting a vibrant social sector, and, ultimately, catalyzing the broad, long-term changes our world needs. It’s time we program officers embrace the boring!

Dana Schmidt is a senior program officer at Echidna Giving. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaSchmidt33.

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