Program officers are the real grantmakers

[Editor’s note: The author of this column is a veteran foundation officer who wishes to remain anonymous.]

The Insider

This column is all about letting you know how it really works behind the closed doors of the philanthropic world.

Let me explode one of the great myths – that foundation boards decide who gets funded and who doesn’t.

With their powerful resumes and celebrity status – at least on a local level — board members of non-family foundations just don’t spend time discussing the merits of individual grant proposals.

Not infrequently, we get asked by applicants about the makeup of our various boards and their interests and eccentricities, and for their home and business phone numbers.

And we play along and laud the power of the board to make or break the applicant’s dreams.

But let’s get real: Ninety-five percent of your chances of getting funded rest with the individual program officers and whether they want to move you forward in the process.

In the best philanthropies, the program officer is actively and accurately interpreting and driving some broader strategy or vision to the community and its leadership.

At an average foundation, the program staff sits back and plays innocent and always defaults to the multiple versions of: “Well, we won’t know until the Board meets” or “I love what you are doing but I just don’t know how the board will react”.

At the most pernicious philanthropies – and there are many, irrespective of size — the program staff is something like the doorman at the hot dance place who looks you over and quickly decides whether you meet the sight-and-smell test.

And what might get you into the club, or get you left out it?

* Your effusive praise of us

* Your language skills, depending on whether they are good or bad.

* Your university or church affiliation.

* The size of your organization

* Maybe the mere fact that the program officer doesn’t know who you are as an applicant or an individual.

And none of these selection criteria have anything to do with the board and its esteemed leadership.

Foundation boards, almost out of necessity, concern themselves with financial planning, accountability and public perception.

Unless they have some consuming issue interest or local knowledge, foundation boards feign belief in everything the CEO and program staff communicate to them regarding individual applicants.

Many times in my career, I have played with the facts for my boards regarding applicants and their projects — sometimes to get dollars out to people I believed could do the work, and other times to kill proposals with groups I knew to be self-serving or incompetent.

And we always get praised for bringing such great information to the board and having our hands on the pulse of the community.

The key then is not to try and pull strings with the board members; it just doesn’t work very often and makes the foundation staff furious.

The key is to try and figure out what turns the program staff on — especially those who like to think of themselves as rainmakers.

For foundation boards and CEOs, the challenge is to hire and promote the best talent available.

This doesn’t happen very often. Next time I’ll talk about why.

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