Note to the Program Officer
The scope of the program officer job description has evolved. Where it was once primarily tactical—reviewing funding requests and developing requests for proposals—the program officer’s role more commonly includes strategic activities. Program officers must master three distinct areas: (1) developing and strengthening internal networksand relationships, (2) creating the foundation/giving program’s grantmaking strategy,and (3) engaging grantees and the community.
We interviewed several program officers from corporate foundations and giving programs for advice to those who are new to their positions; their comments are included here. While this document is not a detailed job description, it will provide novice program officers with insight and advice for those initial days on the job. We hope you find this helpful as you embark on this new phase in your career.
Developing and Strengthening Internal Networks and Relationships
“I should have forged those internal relationships sooner rather than later.”
Establish relationships with the corporate senior leadership team and foundation board members.
“Understand senior leadership’s view on corporate philanthropy, as it will provide you with insight on how the foundation/giving program is viewed.”
Establish relationships with foundation staff and other corporate constituency groups. Do not underestimate the company’s culture and politics. There are numerous people and networks, and seeing how they are connected to your work takes time and effort. One program officer recommended communicating and sharing information with foundation/giving program colleagues: “I always copied my boss and colleagues on e-mails, because I wanted them to be aware of things I was working on and, in turn, offer me advice or their expertise.”
Partner with corporate executives in regional offices. Recognize the cultural differences between individuals at corporate headquarters and those in regional offices. These individuals need to buy into the foundation/giving program’s philanthropic efforts, as they support and represent your work in the field. “Executives in the field offices are your sources of information and vehicles for communication.”
- Find mentors—individuals in the field and those external to the field—to guide you during the initial months on the job.
- Engage in informal relationship building with team members and other company colleagues via informal means—lunches, coffee, or special events.
- Establish relationships with the corporate communications/public relations department(s). “In the event you are on a panel discussion or visiting a nonprofit, it is important to have the latest company information to convey to the external audience.”
- Establish ties with the human resources department, as you will work with these individuals on diversity and employee contribution issues.
- Work with executives in regional offices, as they know and understand the “pulse” of the community and are good allies. These executives know which associates are best to tap for certain projects, such as board placements or volunteers with special talents. In addition, for companies with a wide geographic or international reach, program officers need to depend on those executives for information and guidance. “Last year, we provided grants to nonprofits in 25 countries, so working with executives is crucial.”
Creating the Foundation/Giving Program’s Grantmaking Strategy
“Avoid getting caught up in the minutiae of grantmaking. When building a framework, always step back from your portfolio to understand how it fits into the big picture.”
Guide the strategic direction of the foundation/giving program’s grantmaking agenda, ensuring it aligns with corporate goals. One program officer helped reframe the company’s contribution guidelines and assisted with the development of new grant programs.
Select and lead the foundation/giving program’s grant portfolio, ensuring programs are consistent with the overall strategy. Understand the logic and rational behind existing program areas and the selection of individual grants. In particular, one program officer noted the importance of understanding how individual grants link to the foundation/giving program’s strategic plan.
- Seek out subject matter experts within the company structure to learn more about the company’s grantmaking areas. One program officer assigned to the foundation’s environmental portfolio worked closely with the head of the company’s environmental practice to develop a grant strategy.
- Fund studies and surveys to get an in-depth understanding of an issue or program focus area. One program officer noted that his foundation funded a study that examined small and mid-sized businesses’ attitudes toward corporate citizenship—one of the foundation’s focus areas. This, in turn, helped members of the foundation staff refocus their grantmaking efforts.
- Build and increase knowledge of the company’s industry and grantmaking areas. “After three months on the job, I was asked to appear on a public television interview with a veteran grantmaker. Fortunately, I had already established relations with the company’s PR department. If you are a new grantmaker, make sure you become knowledgeable about the markets in which your business operates.”
- Attend industry-related seminars and conferences hosted by groups and associations. Doing so enables you to interact with peers, learn about other corporate philanthropic initiatives, and represent your company in the field.
- Learn from examples of other corporate philanthropic programs that are similar to yours, as well as those that are different, to broaden personal thinking and spur creativity.
Engaging with Grantees and the Community
“Working with community leaders and partners is rewarding—you are drawn to their passion, their ideas, and their will to do good.”
Maintain good relations between the company and the community. Clearly communicate grant guidelines to grantseekers; doing so will strengthen the company’s image in the community. Understand the importance of establishing and building relationships by meeting with grantees, and be aware of the power dynamic between grantmakers and grantees.
Provide strategic and technical assistance to your grantees and the community. One company foundation invites its grantees for an annual two-day check-in meeting. “These meetings enable us to see what impact we are making and make us aware of the additional support our grantees need.”
- Maintain ongoing dialogue with nonprofits and look for ways to support them in addition to grants.
- Rely on various internal and external sources for information. One program officer realized she needed to familiarize herself with key contacts at the more than 100 organizations with which the foundation maintained ties.
- Provide a unique recognition of your grantees’ work by sending customized, handwritten notes to make your communication personal.
- Maintain an online and paper-based file management system and periodically update the information. “I wasn’t as diligent with paperwork as I could’ve been. I fell behind recording grant close-outs…it’s always hard to go back to those files months later and capture all the relevant information.”
- Meet and build relationships with foundation/giving program colleagues who evaluate nonprofit organizations and their programs, as it is important to understand their role in the grant management process.
This content is for Council members only.