Nothing (well, not much) to be afraid of. (Photo Credit: Gwydion M. Williams, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Here’s a phrase no grantee likes to hear: “Your program officer is leaving the foundation.” Immediately, the worry starts. Does this mean they’ll stop funding me? Will my proposal be hung up in limbo until a new program officer is assigned? Will they find someone who supports my work? Will the new person really understand me like [insert name of beloved (and now former) program officer]? Will I be able to build a new relationship?

From what I’ve seen, there’s good reason to worry a little, and no reason to worry a lot.

Yes, relationships matter and there will be time and effort required on both sides to establish a new one. But we have quite a bit of experience with program officer transitions and, well, plus ça change.

At the Hewlett Foundation, all program officers and program directors are limited to one eight-year term, so in addition to the typical career transitions—a family move, a return to school for graduate studies, the offer of an extraordinary professional opportunity—we have more planned transitions than most organizations. And we have built some practices over the years to mitigate risk (and hopefully reassure the anxious) on all sides.

First, we work within a strategic framework. While relationships are important aspects of grant making, they do not trump strategy. For each of the areas in which we work, we have an explicit strategy, and each grant is expected to be clearly linked to one or more parts of it. That connection protects grantees from capricious or relationship-based changes, and grantees are well-advised to understand how their work fits into our larger picture—in part so that they can help orient an incoming program officer who may not immediately see the link.

Second, we collaborate. Several foundation staff have responsibilities related to each grant, and know details about both its history and the current work. In particular, each program officer works closely with a program associate, who understands the nature of the relationship with the grantee and can maintain continuity. During the year before a planned transition, program associates are called upon even more than usual to follow the conversations between the outgoing program officer and grantees, so that fresh, nuanced information can be conveyed to incoming staff. Similarly, our colleagues in the Grants Management Department know the ins-and-outs of the grants — after all, they read all the proposals and the reports. And we’ve established a practice of having “proposal buddies,” in which program officers ask one of their peers to review concept notes and proposals, and suggest questions or issues to raise. So while a program officer may be walking out the door, crucial information is held by several of the colleagues they are leaving behind, and the “buddy” can often take on temporary responsibilities for a grant until the outgoing program officer’s successor is hired.

Third, we document. Grant files, which are normally filled with all the required information, constitute the historical record—and are the right place for outgoing program officers to document their assessment of grantee performance and potential. Before they leave, program officers spend many hours making sure that files are up-to-date and as complete as possible.

Fourth, we orient. All this preparation would mean little if an incoming program officer didn’t have time to absorb the information, and get to know grantees and their work. When transitions are planned, we take pains to make sure that a new program officer has relatively few grant decisions to make for about the first six months, giving time for orientation, learning the job and, often, a lot of site visits.

Finally, we communicate. Throughout the leaving, recruiting, and orienting periods, we try hard to let grantees know what’s going on and, especially, who their main point of contact is at the Foundation. We never want grantees to wonder whom to call on if they have a concern or question. Interim arrangements permit us to review and process proposals and reports, get payments out, and take care of the other basics expected of a funder. 

So: feel free to worry a little, but not a lot.