Managing Expectations, Coping With Realities

by Lee Draper

Every year, scores of individuals are recruited to join the program staff of foundations. As program officers or directors, they allocate billions of dollars to the nonprofit organizations doing work in our communities and abroad.

Despite being charged with such responsibility, newcomers to the field of philanthropy are typically brought in without much formal orientation, training, coaching, or mentoring. Often they are thrown into their positions like a novice swimmer pushed off the diving board into the deep end. They are shown the office and the piles of proposals to review. Colleagues expect them to walk in and, from the get-go, evaluate funding requests, assess financial statements, and effectively interact with nonprofit leaders.

People who join foundations come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. There is no institutionalized credentialing or degree process for those new to the field. Although many have nonprofit management experience, the grantmaker perspective that they must adopt is dramatically different. Those who arrive from the business, academic, or public sectors experience a significant learning curve. Whatever their previous employment, newcomers can find their new role and responsibilities challenging, unfamiliar, and stressful.

Joining a foundation staff can be exhilarating as well as challenging. Often, newcomers find themselves trying to balance many different demands, while trying not to let any one thing fall by the wayside. To fulfill the missions of foundations, it's important not just to get the day-to-day tasks done. We must take the time to make sure newcomers to the foundation world are ready to take on and meet the challenges of the job.

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