What it Takes - Going from Program Associate to Program Officer

On Friday, April 1st, over 35 pleasant and sedulous philanthropists gathered at the Surdna Foundation to participate in the EPIP-NY session, “Making the Transition from Program Associate to Program Officer: The Inside Scoop from Family Philanthropy.” The event featured a panel full of the wisdom and insight of foundation leaders Will Cordery, Program Officer from the Strong Local Economies Program, Leticia Peguero, Executive Director of the Andrus Family Fund, and Philip Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation.

The room resonated with trust and honesty. The refreshing connection was made possible thanks to the engaging content delivered by the speakers and the remarkable listening skills of the attendees. The attendees and participants were diverse—some foundation program directors, others were fresh out of college and had been working in philanthropy for less than a year.

The primary advice shared revolved around gaining skills that help you become a better leader. Instead of “teaching to the test” that would land you that P.O. job, panelists encouraged participants to focus on leading authentically from their interests and sense of purpose.

On any given day a Program Officer or President has to juggle between a myriad of meetings and being present in each setting where they show up. Listening intently for a quality experience with a grantee partner or funder colleague is essential. To prepare for excellence in these roles, panelists stressed that candidates focus should be on skills transferable across the longer arc of a career in the social sector.

Panelists shared the trajectory of their careers, showcasing that all speakers began working “on the ground” in not-for-profit organizations prior to joining philanthropy. They addressed the tensions critical to keep in mind when working in philanthropy, such as the inherent power imbalance in which we operate and the intersections of oppression that affect how younger people, people of color, women, LGBTQ, and disabled philanthropists must navigate in their workspaces.

The conversation was rich and thoughtful and truly reflected the connection in our community across generations. I know, though, that some attendees sought a more specifics set of tasks and skills they could use to progress their career.

For those who seek a more detailed instructions, below are a few short-term pointers I’ve gathered in my few years as a Program Associate to help you get the ball rolling. I’m grateful for the program associates, program officers and executive directors along the way who’ve shared these tips with me:

  1. Be point for a grantee partner: Before hiring you to become a program officer, most foundations will want you to prove you can steward at least a couple of grantees from intake to closing of grant, showing how your connection with this grantee has helped them get to a better place as a project or organization.

  2. Find your niche! If you are not an expert in the issue area, read books, find out what program officers are doing, and explore the “uncovered” terrain. Read, learn from others, and try to become the knowledge base for your team in this area.

  3. Keep building your network and learning! Ask for opportunities to sit in on meetings and just listen. It will educate you not only on the field, the issue area, but also on the tremendous magnetism and brilliance that comes from our grantee partners. Go out to breakfast or lunch with your fellow colleagues, if only to brainstorm how to continue growing or use each other as sounding boards.

  4. Become an asset to your team! Anticipate the needs of your team members and try to be ready to meet them. Study the work habits and styles of your managers, they will appreciate when you tailor your style to meet their needs.

  5. Write blogs: Share what you’re thinking with the world, whenever you are ready. Be strategic about what topics you will cover and whose voices you will privilege. We have enough power as is, do we really need to write more about ourselves as funders?

  6. Volunteer to facilitate meetings: Practice your public speaking and facilitation skills. EPIP is a great vehicle for this!

  7. Arrive ready: Your professionalism and friendly demeanor inspires confidence in your leadership. Be mentally, physically, and emotionally ready to lead…people will notice that shine in your eye.

  8. Avoid competition: It’s draining, and unhelpful to the cause of helping grantee partners and growing in your career. Although rampant in almost any place where groups of people gather, remember to stay grounded in why you are working in this field. Focus on the actual outcomes of your work and take the higher road.

  9. Speak when it’s meaningful: Sometimes junior staff members feel intimidated or discouraged from playing a visible role because they’re not usually asked to do so. Don’t play small! Be confident, always read and do your research before meetings, and if you do speak, try to make it a meaningful contribution. If you’re shy, challenge yourself to speak up. If you’re mouthy, try to speak less but say something more meaningful. (There’s nothing worse than the junior staff person who says unrelated things only to hear your own voice.) The executive directors who come to our organization fundraising are busy people. Don’t waste their time!

  10. Stay active in the community and remember who the real experts are: Sometimes in philanthropy we have the false notion that we’re the experts of a particular topic, forgetting that we learned most of what we know from the not-for-profit leaders and communities we serve. Stay grounded by staying on the ground, whether by serving on a board, attending local events, or having dinner with your friend who works at that great organization and can “keep it real” with you.

  11. Pick your projects with a “2 career moves ahead” mentality: Although I’m not usually a huge planner, consider it an exercise in creativity. Don’t commit until you feel ready, but imagine yourself as the President. What would you need to know, and have lead, in order to be there in a few years? Then, pick the projects or teams that will afford you those skills. If you don’t have time to be so calculating about it, then trust your gut. What work feels more meaningful and rewarding to you? Why? Honor what your instincts tell you, and grow from there.

Still not sure if this is helpful to your growth in philanthropy? Don’t guess! Make one on one time with your supervisor to discuss your professional development plan, and ask them to spell out what would make a stellar P.A. who is P.O. material. I had a great time organizing this session and learning from our panelists and participants. I hope this is helpful to you on your own journey to make a greater impact through philanthropy and grow in your career.

Shine on! ~ Manuela Arciniegas, Senior Program Associate, Andrus Family Fund

Surdna_12.15.15_ManuelaArc__010.jpgManuela Arciniegas is the Senior Program Associate for the Andrus Family Fund and brings over 14 years of experience in youth organizing, community outreach, and cultural arts education.  She currently manages the community organizing portfolio of the Andrus Family Fund. Manuela is currently a Next Generation Fellow with Hispanics in Philanthropy, a member of the Steering Committee of the New York City Chapter of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, a Public Humanities Fellow at the National Council of the Humanities and a Magnet Presidential Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center where she obtained a masters in Ethnomusicology and is currently conducting dissertation research on power, music and culture in Afro-Caribbean religious communities. Manuela graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Harvard University.  Manuela also directs The Legacy Women, an all-women’s traditional Afro-Caribbean drum music ensemble that teaches and performs on the eastern seaboard with the goal of empowering women and girls throughout NYC by developing their musicianship, self-esteem and cultural awareness.


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