Working Well with Grantees: A Guide for Foundation Program Staff

Foundations and grantees are often working on the toughest, most heart-wrenching social problems. The stress and strain of that effort makes working productively together especially challenging. This difficulty is only heightened by the power dynamics that exist in a relationship in which one party possesses resources the other needs. This context makes it all the more important that foundations understand how to work well with grantees.

That’s why we are very pleased to offer this new resource from CEP: Working Well with Grantees: A Guide for Foundation Program Staff.

Those who work as program officers at foundations are integral to the experiences that grantees have with foundations. No matter the issue areas which are their focus or the policies of the foundation for which they work, program officers have the ability to profoundly influence grantee experiences. In fact, our research shows that, in some respects, the program officer matters more to the experience that grantees have with foundations than does the foundation itself.

And, as we have noted in other publications, bad relationships extract a real cost.

“Disrespectful, incompetent, or just plain unavailable program officers affect the nonprofit sector on many levels. They not only frustrate grantees but also can reduce grantees’ ability to achieve the very goals that foundations fund them to pursue. To make both grantees and foundations more effective, foundations must pay more attention to the hiring, training, and evaluation of their program officers.”

Working well with grantees requires effort, but it’s worth it. It is through its grantees that a foundation pursues its goals. As Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, put it, “Those partnerships are our lifeblood.”

In short, program staff are crucial to effective philanthropy. Although most funders understand the importance of program officers’ relationships with grantees, few resources exist to help them understand and strengthen those relationships. Scarcer still are resources that are based on large datasets of information collected from grantees about what they value—rather than conjecture, opinion, and anecdote. So whether you are a new program officer or a seasoned veteran, we hope you’ll find in this guide—which we are releasing today—information that can help strengthen the way you work with your grantees.

We hope foundations use the guide to orient and train new staff, to help seasoned staff further develop and reflect on practice, and as a basis for discussion about the challenging dynamics of these relationships. Let us know what you think.


Ellie Buteau is Vice President of Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can find her on Twitter @EButeau_CEP.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @PhilCEP.

communications, comparative data, effective philanthropy, grantee perspectives, research, Working Well With Grantees
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