How To Avoid Being a Toolish Program Officer

I've had the misfortune of raising several million dollars in charitable funding during the past few years for Global Integrity. Non-profit fundraising is, to put it generously, a challenging task. Less generous descriptors including "soul sucking," "infuriating," and "demoralizing." But there's no point in whining about, because if you don't want to fundraise, don't start a non-profit. Get a job working for The Man instead; the Man will fundraise for you. Over the years I've had both the immense pleasure and extreme agony of working with a wide range of program officers at a variety of charitable foundations, multilateral institutions, and other private donors. I use "program officer" here to refer generally to anyone at the working level within a donor organization who controls, in whole or in part, whether non-profits get funded.

In working with both the great program officers and the hideous ones, I've witnessed a bit about what works and what doesn't when it comes to being an effective, above-average program officer. Or, to quote this post's title, at least how program officers can avoid being tools.

Top 3 Ways to Avoid Being a Toolish Program Officer

Be responsive and accessible. Even if the "response" is "Go away, I will never fund you in a thousand years," nothing insults a social entrepreneur or non-profit manager more than being face palmed by a program officer who refuses to answer simple queries or introductions. On the flip side, this attitude is so common amongst program officers that those that are responsive (even if the answer is negative) become instant legends and create thousands of fan boys and girls. This isn't trivial; these more responsive program officers end up sourcing better investments down the road because social entrepreneurs know they can come to them with ideas in a mutually respectful context.

Example: in late-2011 a colleague that runs a much larger and more well-known non-profit in my space made the very generous introduction to a large foundation with which Global Integrity had never had a relationship. Despite the personal introduction from this highly-esteemed grantee of the foundation, and repeated follow-ups by me, I literally never got a single word of reply acknowledging the introduction (never mind a courtesy 10-minute phone call or Skype chat). That is Being a Tool 101.

Be explicit with who really makes the decisions in your organization. Pretending that you the program officer, and only you, have the power to make funding decisions when in fact four of your bosses and your board have to agree, is misleading and erodes trust with your grantees. Being explicit about where decision making authority lies within the donor organization, and how best to navigate internal politics, helps align your interests with those of the prospective grantee. Smart program officers often enlist to help of their prospective grantees in working the internal politics of the organization, aligning their interests with the grantee's.

Contribute to the ideation process. Social entrepreneurs like nothing less than dead wood program officers who contribute nothing to their proposals and ideas. Paper pushing program officers should be replaced by Google Forms, immediately. The best program officers are the ones with enough confidence to work intensively with their prospective grantees to make their ideas better, not the ones who know how to fill out proposal templates the fastest.