It’s time to completely reimagine the role of foundation program officers

[Image description: A fluffy white puppy is hugged and kissed a fluffy white kitten with a graying tail and ears. They are both very fluffy and cute. The kitten has their arms around the puppy’s neck. While normally this image would have nothing to do with the content of the post, this time the kitten and puppy hugging is a great symbol for a closer partnership between nonprofit leaders and foundation program officers.]

Over a decade—and a million white hairs—ago I ran an after-school program serving low-income kids. The program went well, until one day when two-third of the kids didn’t show up. This was demoralizing. The program had started gradually decreasing in attendance, but this was the worst it had been. I literally slid down a wall and sat on the floor after the day ended, feeling like a complete loser. Strangely enough, the first person I thought about calling was one of our funders. So I called her. “Muriel,” I said, “most of the kids didn’t show up today! We are terrible human beings! Maybe you should just take the money back and give it to a program that isn’t garbage!” 

Muriel was extremely calm. “Vu,” she said, “you are not terrible. Your program is great. This is happening across the city. It’s spring in Seattle. Kids want to be outside. All the programs are having this issue.” I looked out the window; it was one of eight days of sunshine we get each year. Muriel saved me from having a breakdown that day. The staff and I started including more outdoor activities; we asked the kids for their opinions on what other activities they wanted to see, and in a few days they came back.

I bring up this story because one, I often provide some really critical feedback about foundations and program officers and what they need to improve on, but it’s important to recognize that there are many amazing funders like Muriel out there. Their work and support are vital, and yet because we tend to focus on things that are not going well, we sometimes forget about our foundation allies who are behind the scenes doing important things. To those program officers, I know I don’t say it enough, but I see and appreciate you.

Two, unfortunately, in contrast to Muriel, there are still many instances of funders behaving badly and serving as obstacles in nonprofits’ way. Last week, someone told me about a foundation’s staff who prohibits copy-and-pasting on renewal grant applications, even though it’s for the same programs. “We just copy-and-paste the narrative anyway,” said my colleague, understandably rolling her eyes, “and then we just rearrange the sentences around.” This is an example of insulting and time-wasting funding practices that are harming our communities. People are dying while we busy ourselves trying to satisfy funders’ various insipid whims. (It’s a renewal grant; why is there even an application in the first place when a simple report would do?)

However, it’s not all these program officers’ fault. I think in many ways we as a sector have pigeonholed foundation program officers. We have internalized this idea that their role is one of micromanager and compliance officer, whose jobs are mainly to ensure nonprofits align and comply, even with ineffective or harmful practices and strategies set by foundations. This old-school default role prevents POs from being authentic allies and partners with pivotal responsibilities that could greatly enhance our work. It’s time for our sector to completely reimagine the role of foundation program officers. Here’s what this may look like, in no particular order, based on experience I’ve had with the program officers who have been the most helpful:

POs have more autonomy for funding decisions: As I wrote earlier, this system where POs make funding recommendations for foundation board of trustees to approve is ineffective. Trustees are the least knowledgeable on issues and communities and should use their time and influence in other areas (namely other high-wealth individuals). Program officers should be trusted to make major decisions on how much and where funding should be invested. This way, funding can be distributed quickly and efficiently where it’s most needed instead of being locked up in bureaucratic red tape.

POs are partners, providing advice and moral support: The best, most helpful program officers see themselves as partners in the work. They are on the ground. They get drinks with us on occasion, sometimes with no formal agenda. They provide advice and can be counted on for support and morale boost when things are rough. I know many program officers that I would put into this category. Working with them is fun, and I never feel like I have to hide anything, such as when things don’t go well. This sort of relationship fosters transparency, trust, and respect, which leads to more effective strategies that benefit the communities we serve.

POs connect and convene nonprofits: Because POs work with multiple programs, they have a broader view of who is out there doing what, and any trends or patterns that are cropping up. Muriel being able to see patterns my team and I could not, is an example of this. Because of this lens, program officers can be instrumental in the work by making introductions between leaders and convening groups of us who are doing work that should align, serving an important role of being pollinators of ideas.

POs find, and move funding toward, marginalized communities: Program officers take an active role in finding the organizations that are led by and serving the communities that are most affected by injustice, and moving resources to those organizations and communities. This means serving, as a colleague puts it, like university talent scouts who go out into neighborhoods and find out which students have athletic skills or other potential and recruiting them. POs need to do research, visit programs, build relationships, and find the communities with the most needs, because likely those communities will be the least able to successfully apply for grants.

POs take lead in leveraging funding: A question we nonprofits get asked on grant proposals is “How will you leverage this grant with other funders?” The brutally honest answer is, Why should nonprofits be the ones leveraging funding? Program officers know one another. Wouldn’t it make more sense for program officers to leverage funding? If we are to be effective and authentic partners, then everyone should do what they’re good at. Nonprofit leaders should focus on running programs, and POs can help by serving as catalysts to get other foundations to invest funding.

POs sound the alarm on, and mobilize funds for, urgent issues: There are many serious issues that need attention in our sector, but we that nonprofits are often too busy or just have no energy to tackle. For example, more and more leaders of color are leaving the sector. And few of us have any sort of retirement savings, something I’ll write about in a future post. POs can play a pivotal role getting the sector to focus on these areas, and mobilizing resources to address them.  

As the problems facing our communities intensify, and they have been, foundations must change how they operate, and the role of program officers must evolve. We have been talking for years about how nonprofits and foundations need to work as equal partners. This is not just a nice-to-have anymore, but it is essential if we want to be effective as a sector. This means program officers moving away from being the supervisor breathing down everyone’s necks, to the co-worker we can go to Karaoke with to complain about our supervisor.

This vision hinges on a few things, though, including the unlearning of several ineffective philosophies and practices and adopting some new ones. Program officers, along with foundation boards, need to reflect the community, because it is currently very white. POs must be trained in unconscious biases. They must examine and understand power dynamics, because even in this shift to be more egalitarian, there will still be imbalance. Funders need to focus on equity, not equality; this means knocking it off with competitive grants altogether. Everyone must get over archaic concepts like overhead and sustainability. And this will be expanded in a future post, but funders need to stop taking lead in setting strategies and forcing nonprofits to “align” with them when it’s the nonprofits that are on the ground and would have better knowledge of which strategies would be most effective.  

Again, there are many program officers who are already operating this way, as true partners, and we appreciate you. The rest need to do start to do so. In light of all the injustice we are fighting, we no longer have time for the micromanaging and gatekeeping that are still core to many program officers’ work.

I would say, though, that the reimagined role of program officers, and the above responsibilities, should be way more interesting, fun, and rewarding than the current default role of many program officers. More importantly, it will allow our sector to be more effective at advancing an equitable world.

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