Program Officers: Foundations’ Cultural and Strategic Messengers

By Allen Smart

The foundation program officer has always had a difficult role. Part gatekeeper, part bureaucracy manager, part cheerleader – and now increasingly responsible for building collaboratives, promoting equity and engendering trust. 

At their best, they can hold all these skills concurrently. At their least effective, they gravitate to one competency over all others and muddle through their tasks without meeting the demands of their internal or external stakeholders. The result: program officers that aren’t providing value to their grantees, communities or foundation leadership. They are too often just getting by.

The evolution of the program officer role has followed similar shifts in private philanthropy. Beginning as bank trust officers in the early days of philanthropy and growing to influential issue experts and movement leaders in the 60s and 70s. The 80s and 90s saw the explosion of foundation staffing, process and layers of decision making. Many program officers became primarily process navigators. 

When I (with my colleagues) coined the term “Program Officer of the 21st Century” for a Southeastern Council of Foundations (now Philanthropy Southeast) conference presentation a few years back, the branding was meant to reflect the need to move program officers to a more community-engaged listening and facilitative model, in an effort to diminish the inherent power dynamics in the funder-nonprofit relationship. The change also tasked the program officer with responsibilities that extended far past grantmaking — to using the social and facilitative capital of foundations. This switch from steward to activator was, and still isn’t easy, for many. The challenge is how to best support this more active and nuanced role?

For decades, philanthropy supporting organizations, sometimes described as foundation affinity groups, have organized various trainings under such titles as Foundations 101 and the Art and Science of Grantmaking – brief general exposure curriculum meant to give those new to foundations a common language. Concurrently, there developed a series of leadership and peer support programs for those younger in their career; those in specific operational roles or those from specific demographic backgrounds, as examples. What didn’t develop, however, was any training or support for the evolving role of the program officer. Nothing to respond to the basic questions of “How Can I Be Good at My Job” or “What does a Successful Program Officer Look Like and How to Get There”? 

I am happy to say that there is progress! In March 2021, the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University released the first-ever Program Officer Competency Model. Having been involved in multiple stages of the review of the product, I can vouch for the thoroughness of the process and the wide-ranging job descriptions, opinions and experiences that were collected, sifted and sorted along the way. The model is broken into four broad competencies:

  • Proposals and Due Diligence
  • Relationships and Field Building
  • Strategy, Evaluation and Learning
  • Cross-Cutting

Within these four broader categories are specific competencies like Grantmaker-Grantee Relationships and the related behaviors needed to master to achieve competency. It’s the first real attempt to catalogue all the existing and aspirational skills that a program officer might be expected to develop over time. Think of the implications for annual staff reviews or development goals. What a way to help provide education for board members on how the program officer is expected to be representing the foundation!

I am taking the Program Officer Competency Model a step further. I have piloted the use of the model with two Appalachian health conversion foundations. Over the course of four all-day, in-person sessions and a mix of coaching calls, a group of seven foundation staffers – including four serving in a Program Office role – were taken through a curriculum that combined readings from the field, experiential case studies and lectures – all specific to the day-to-day responsibilities of program officers. It’s still an introduction but proved valuable for those who have no local peer group, little experience in thinking about the complexity of the role, and often get bogged down by the process of grantmaking. I brought some experienced foundation leaders – one from evaluation and one from program – along for the ride. It was definitely a step in the right direction to support a plan for program officer skills development.

I am not alone! Foundations are beginning to engage with the Johnson Center around the Competency Model. The more that we can recognize the unique skills necessary for highly effective program officers, the more that we can support good people to grow in the field – and for potentially great people to be better recognized in the hiring process. A win-win for all.

Allen Smart is the founder of PhilanthropywoRx. His prior experience includes leadership roles at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and The Rapides Foundation.


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