Program Officers Value Strong Grantee Relationships, Survey Finds

While most foundation program officers value having strong relationships with their grantees, only one in three lists it as one of the responsibilities they spend the most time on, a survey by the Center for Effective Philanthropy finds.

Based on survey responses from a hundred and fifty program officers at foundations with at least $5 million in annual grantmaking, the report, Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities, found that 98 percent of respondents saw having a strong relationship with their grantees as important for achieving the foundation's goals, while 95 percent believed that learning from grantees was integral to their professional development. The report found, however, that while 53 percent of respondents listed developing and maintaining strong grantee relationships as one of the top three responsibilities to which they should devote more time in order to be effective, only 36 percent actually did so. By comparison, 62 percent of respondents listed internal administration among their top three time-consuming responsibilities, despite 75 percent saying administration ideally should take up less time. In addition, about half of respondents reported working at least forty-five hours a week, with a quarter saying they worked at least fifty hours, while 60 percent of respondents said that if they had more time to spend with grantees, they would learn more about and/or develop a stronger relationship with them.

Funded in part by the Rita Allen and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. foundations, the report also found that 85 percent of respondents said they were aware of the challenges their grantees face; 54 percent believed that, in general, nonprofit organizations were well run; and only 39 percent and 9 percent said nonprofits have the knowledge and the resources, respectively, needed to assess the results of their work.

When asked about the challenges they face in their roles as program officers, 84 percent of respondents cited internal issues such as limited resources or capacity, lack of independence or room for professional growth, and a disconnect between their own priorities and those of their foundation's leadership. According to the report, 84 percent of respondents believed they were working toward the same goals as their vice president of programs, while only 71 percent and 52 percent said the same of their president/CEO and board members.

"We know that program officers greatly shape the experiences that grantees have with foundations, but there has been a shortage of research in the field looking deeply into the intricacies of the role," said CEP research manager Jennifer Glickman. "Our data show that program officers know just how crucial it is to learn from the on-the-ground experiences and knowledge that grantees have."

"Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities." Center for Effective Philanthropy Report 06/20/2017. "CEP Report Shares New Data on the Role of Foundation Program Officers." Center for Effective Philanthropy Press Release 06/20/2017.