The inordinate power of programme officers

Luc Tayart de Borms

To achieve impact and effect social or policy change, foundations must reach beyond grantmaking to a variety of other means. The philanthropic toolbox includes advocacy, convening diverse stakeholders, publications, seminars, supporting think-tanks, and communication campaigns – in tandem with proactive grantmaking. But too often foundations undermine their effectiveness by giving programme officers an inordinate amount of power.

When this power is abused, it can result in subjective grantmaking, often to the detriment of the foundation’s aims. It can also undermine accountability and efficiency, and represents a narrow, individualistic view of how best to address important issues.

Often, the selection of grants is prepared by programme officers for a board decision or decided upon by programme officers themselves. Everyone works within his or her own paradigms. By working with traditional methods framed by individual paradigms, programme officers overlook the rich diversity that could be provided by bringing different sets of experience and points of view to the table. Working in isolation also gives the impression that the foundation is ego driven. It could create a dynamic of dependency with beneficiaries who grow to depend on the benevolence of one decision-maker.

Leaving grantmaking to programme officers – or any other person working in isolation – is a slippery slope, fraught with danger. To be truly effective, grantmaking should be a process that is impact driven and therefore driven by stakeholder engagement.

This is a fundamental principle for foundation practice in general since it helps define and achieve short-term and long-term objectives. Through proactive grantmaking, foundations can find innovative ways of working, test out creative ideas, and bring new issues to the political agenda. Such engagement can be achieved by working with an independent selection committee comprising diverse stakeholders or other ways of creating a space for dialogue (convening). A foundation is thus opening the door to innovation and preparing the groundwork for real change.

This argument is aimed more at institutionalized foundations than at giving driven by the impulse of living donors who feel that they have the right to do whatever they want with their wealth. However, if they are concerned about efficiency and impact, such donors may find some inspiration here, too.

There is a further virtue to the use of selection committees. Programme officers waste a lot of time analysing proposals and meeting potential beneficiaries. By working with a volunteer selection committee and good grantmaking software, the deal flow is quicker and smoother, freeing staff to use the other tools in the toolbox.

The selection and awarding of grants is a key element of foundation accountability. As well as accountability to regulatory authorities, we need to think about domain and sector accountability. For example, if a foundation is tackling the problem of migration, all stakeholders in the sector should be engaged in determining the best means of intervention. Otherwise, the foundation gives the impression of being driven by ad hoc and biased decision-making. A foundation must be able to answer this key question: why support one beneficiary/methodology and not another?

Complex problems involve different stakeholders who play critical roles as leverage points of change. It is critical to understand these leverage points and difficult to do so without bringing in stakeholders.

KBF has created selection committees around each field of programme activity or project. They are pluralistic – their 12 members come from various ideological and philosophical backgrounds (without representing them), as well as from grassroots community organizations, NGOs, government, academia and business.

Each committee has a secretariat, comprising a programme officer who cannot vote and an external chair. The KBF board delegates every aspect of grant selection to these committees, which gives a private foundation with a high public profile a reputation for impartiality.

Of course, it is not as easy as all that. Working with – and choosing – a diverse group of people can prove difficult. There are always mavericks (who we need). But this is where the real creativity lies – in creating a space where stakeholders can exchange views and offer a wider diversity of problem analyses and suggestions for solutions.

Luc Tayart de Borms is Managing Director of the King Baudouin Foundation. Email

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