By Cathy García
Program officers (POs) are some of the most complex decision-makers and players within the philanthropic ecosystem; their impact immeasurable when it comes to the people and communities they serve. It’s undoubtedly a position of power and privilege and massive proximity to wealth and influence. For PO’s of racialized and marginalized identities, especially those with deep roots in the communities we are serving, a consequential and perpetual tension exists that requires us to consider what an ethic of care for those moving financial resources to the communities we care for looks like. This has implications for those working inside foundations, but for the community partners they are accountable to.
Program Officers serve as a sort of 'shock absorber' for communities. On the one hand, they are “frontline responders”, brokering resources to communities with expediency and urgency. On the other hand, they are accountable to internal bureaucracy and subject to the mental and emotional labor required of them to advocate internally and build a case for funding. What complicates matters is that a shared definition for what a Program Officer does and who they are accountable is presently non-existent. The Johnson Center for Philanthropy attempts to define the role, noting that the Program Officer is a “critical, nuanced role at the intersection of resources, strategies, and stakeholders.” Allen Smart of PhilanthropywOrx notes that Program Officers are part gatekeeper, part bureaucracy manager, part cheerleader – and now increasingly responsible for building collaboratives, promoting equity and engendering trust. Some definitions exist with respect to praxis. Justice Funders curated a series of articles from program staff in the field committed to just-transition practices - one of my favorite and most referenced list of readings.
Without a shared universal understanding of what PO’s do, who they are accountable to, and what role they play in the philanthropic ecosystem, we set up some of our most promising staff, with arguably one of the most critical roles to play, for failure, burnout, and deep disappointment. Decision-making under these conditions comes with repercussions. Despite their proximity to organizational wealth, power and impact, POs direct decision-making or culture-influencing power is limited. This is true regardless of their expertise, earned relationship with communities or their ability to lead with the vision and urgency the moment warrants. Those who dare to speak out against harmful institutional practices are punished and ousted when they deviate from the standard norms and practices of the sector.
Many more simply suffer in silence and quietly exit, repeating the cycle until they exit with acute phantom impact syndrome, a term La Libertad's Martha Cecilia Ovadia aptly coined. It should not surprise us that 55 percent of entry and mid-level program staff surveyed in a 2018 Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy report did not intend to stay in their roles – or in the sector – beyond the five year mark. The impact to nonprofit organizations and community leaders is palpable. It requires rebuilding new relationships each time staff transition out of their roles. Nonprofit organizations are left “educating up” and having to compress historical context to bring new staff up to speed. The reality is that, in the current design of the Program Officer role, nonprofit organizations are building relationships with an individual extension of the institution - not the institution itself - which is unsustainable and antithetical to the deep kind of steady, long-term relationship building we need to better live up to our mission in philanthropy.
Why? Why are the institutions founded on a “love of mankind” becoming so unsustainable for mankind; for the people that work within them? And for a role whose entire purpose is to cultivate and manage deep community relationships, why isn’t one of the biggest questions in philanthropy, “What can we do to change that?”
Over the years, some foundations have modeled more generative ways of giving and being in relation to communities. Strategies like participatory grantmaking and trust-based philanthropy have soared in visibility and application. Sector leaders are holding robust conversations exploring what it would look like for the sector to go obsolete – to aim for a world where resources are in abundance for everyone and not just for a select few. None of these concepts are new in the conventional sense. Texts like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded and longtime leaders in philanthropy have heralded these approaches for decades. What’s different today is that the conditions have changed. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the widening cracks in the democratic institution, and the advent of technology making explicit what was before hidden, we’re in the headspace as a sector to explore new ways of being in community.
It is time to make space to dream and re-imagine the role of the Program Officer – to remove the “officer” in our names and soften our edges. I'm inspired by alicia sanchez gill, Executive Director of The Emergent Fund who describes herself and her role as as a resource mobilizer. I long for the day when we're clear about the roles that we play as resource brokers and offer containers for us to interrogate what kind of “resource broker” we want to be. As our philanthropic workforce becomes increasingly more diverse and continues to rely on the lived experiences, wisdom and communal strength of its staff, an intentional ethic of care – one shaped outside of the language and boundaries of HR norms – must take form and priority.
I’m not proposing answers here, nor should I be as only one data point and one perspective. However, I want to offer some questions that I’ve asked myself over the years to help build an ethic of care for myself and the communities I care about. These are imperfect questions, in no priority or order, and certainly don’t take into complete account the systemic harms of bigotry, racism, sexism, misogyny, classism and many other -isms I’m undoubtedly missing. But they are an attempt to self interrogate while taking meaningful action in how I move.
What does accountability look like for me? Who am I ultimately accountable to?
Is the institution I work for in alignment with my values? If only partially, how can I practice - in big and small ways - my values in alignment with what’s expected of me?
Am I exercising the power and proximity in response to some kind of trauma and pain? If so, what support and spaces do I need to address and minimize harm from me?
Do I fully understand what success looks like for my community partners? Am I clear on what they need from me to make it so? What assumptions am I making?
What inferences about my own lived experience and identity am I making in my grantmaking decisions?
What tradeoffs am I willing to make to move resources to the communities I care about?
If the ultimate goal of my role as a resource broker is to move resources to the communities I care about, am I actually meeting that goal? In what ways?
What does advocating for the communities that I care about look like inside of these institutions? Am I being effective enough to move resources to them?
How am I taking care of myself?
How am I modeling care for my community partners?
What questions would you add?
(deep gratitude to Marci Ovadia, a friend, an hermana in arms, a visionary and the founder of La Libertad Consulting for your brilliant writing in early iterations of this article.)