Imagining the Program Officer of the Future

Roughly a year ago, I wrote about a fundamental question facing private foundations in the wake of so much disruption in philanthropy in 2020: are professional program officers still needed moving forward? Or should most or all private philanthropies instead attempt to emulate disruptors such as MacKenzie Scott and Jack Dorsey to move vast sums of philanthropic capital to organizations without permanent staffing infrastructure?

A year ago, most of us here at Geneva Global were in the “jury is still out” camp. With the passage of time, I’m now leaning towards a more nuanced answer: program officers are still an important piece of the private foundation puzzle moving forward. But they need to be reimagined to fit the times and needs of both grantees and the social sector writ large.

The Program Officer of the Future

The needs of grantees and the social sector more broadly continue to shift dramatically as the aftershocks of the both the global pandemic and racial justice reform efforts in the United States call into question several traditional operating assumptions for private philanthropies. Among them:

  • Norms and expectations are continuing to shift, in some ways dramatically, towards default grantmaking being more “trust-based” and centered on multiyear operating support rather than shorter-term project grants.
  • Politics, power, and systems change efforts are becoming more and more central to many grantees’ strategies and programmatic plans.
  • While philanthropic giving is up at an aggregate level since 2020, many traditional sectors and funding streams are seeing moderate to severe pullbacks as donors shift resources to pandemic-related and social justice efforts.

Presuming those shifts hold and begin to form a “new normal” for philanthropy in the years to come, what would an ideal program officer look like for the private foundation of the future? While there’s no formulaic answer, our work with clients (including the largest institutional philanthropies and smaller, no-staff family foundations) during these past 18 months of tumult suggest the following elements:

  • Be an advocate and champion for grantees rather than just a grant maker. If the shift towards multi-year operating support continues to hold, the average program officers’ work volume (from a strategy development, grantee identification, due diligence, and monitoring perspective) should lessen, as the “homework” required to sustain a portfolio of “old school” project grants is theoretically greater than a portfolio of longer-term general support grantees. What to do with that time? Invest in grantee advocacy and visibility. While money (in the form of grants) will always be important for grantees, program officers can play a key role in advocating for their grantees with other prospective donors, the media, and other influencers. The program officer of the future should be equal parts donor and quasi-board member.
  • Bring the politics of change and power into future grantmaking strategies and portfolios. Gone may be the days of developing grantmaking strategies that are entirely technical while ignoring and remaining silent on the role of power and politics in social change efforts. Philanthropies that remain stuck in older models of technical portfolio design (treating social sector challenges as engineering problems rather than messy political ones) risk falling behind their own grantees and being less useful and relevant to partners. There are certain red lines private philanthropies can’t easily cross (into direct political activities), but bringing politics and power explicitly into portfolio strategies is increasingly important as a design principle.
  • Recruit and develop program officers who can support grantees with organizational development and leadership support, not just money. This isn’t a new concept, and an increasing number of philanthropies understand the importance of in-kind, non-financial support focused on leadership, strategic communications, fundraising, and governance. The challenge in maximizing the potential impact from those investments has been that the average program officer is often less experienced in those actual functions than the grantee leaders they are trying to support. Historically, program officers have been recruited for their domain expertise, not necessarily their organizational leadership or management track records (with exceptions, of course). If you haven’t had to deal with personnel crises, financial surprises, media conflagrations, or board fights, it’s hard to know what sort of non-grant operational support your grantees might really need. As private philanthropies recruit and cultivate their program officers of the future, balancing technical domain expertise with management and leadership track record feels increasingly important.
  • Recruit and staff program officers from the communities in which they are making grants. For donors that are increasingly place-based in their strategy, recruiting and cultivating program officer talent from those places is crucial for both credibility and perspective. The disruption caused by the pandemic to traditional office setups presents a silver lining: it’s time to distribute (and recruit) program officers more geographically to (and from) the communities they aspire to support.

These shifts will take years to implement and there are significant internal change management challenges facing many private philanthropies as they grapple with turning these principles into practice. But doing nothing is no longer an option. Upcoming staffing and leadership transitions offer important, bite-sized entry points to the process by creating moments to reimagine how philanthropies staff themselves moving forward, and why.