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A Day in the Life of a Foundation Officer

Perhaps the most prestigious job in the philanthropic giving world is that of a foundation officer, also known as a program officer. At the largest foundations, program officers are the elite, intellectual powerhouses behind philanthropy in America and the world. They are admired, courted and feared by fundraisers and nonprofit executive directors alike.

This is the day in the life of a fictional foundation officer at one of the top-100 largest foundations in the country, with a mission to serve nonprofit organizations in an urban region crossing three states along the East Coast. In total, the foundation gives away $50 million a year. The foundation officer is part of a three-person team charged with giving $11 million in grants annually to arts and culture organizations in the region.

8:15 a.m.: Arrive at the office a bit early so that you can answer e-mails before the phone starts ringing. You've been tied up in so many meetings this week that you have a mountain of messages you haven't even opened yet. About a dozen are from grantees that have sent interim reports due at the six-month point of their grant terms. You shoot them all quick e-mails thanking them for the report and telling them you will get back to them with any questions. You scan through another six or seven e-mails with news clippings on various topics--reviews of local theater productions, a profile of the new executive director of the city's chamber orchestra and a feature article in the Enquirer (the primary newspaper for the region) on the status of performing arts in the region. You take a minute to read this article in full. It's centered on a report that the foundation funded and that you helped develop, a survey of performing arts organizations with commentary from several economists on the many ways in which arts and culture activities bolster local economies. You're glad to see that one of the economists that you brought on board to the project, a professor from New York University, is quoted in the article.

You also respond to an e-mail from your boss, the director of the arts and culture program, confirming that you are available for lunch. There's also an e-mail from him asking for a list of the letters of inquiry to be considered at the next review meeting to occur at the end of the month. You quickly tick off the 13 organizations that have sent you letters, a three-page request summary that serves as the first step in the proposal submission process for the foundation. You also let your boss know that you have invited two other organizations to submit letters, and you expect to receive them by next week.

9:20 a.m.: Start returning phone messages; you had five from yesterday from various grantees. You call the grant writer at the natural history museum, who had a question about how to update outcome measures in the letter of intent that the museum is about to submit to you. You tell her it's not necessary to update them at all, that the ones submitted last year provided a lot of information to the foundation's board on how the museum was evaluating the impact of new programs on audience attendance. You leave a message for the director of development for a dance company giving her three days next month when you would be available for a site visit. You also ask that she send you a copy of the company's latest marketing plan to review before the visit; the grant the foundation gave last year was to help the company hire a new marketing director and a contract publicist. You're curious to see how the new hires are working out. Then you speak with the executive director of a small puppet theater, assuring him that it's perfectly fine to submit a letter of intent some time next week. He is extraordinarily apologetic that the letter will come several days later than anticipated, explaining that the director of development and her assistant are both out with the flu.

10:15 a.m.: Join the monthly conference call for the Cultural Alliance, a consortium of arts organizations across the region focused on audience development. Your foundation is one of three funders that have invested in an online ticketing and audience management system to be managed by the Cultural Alliance that will allow a broad range of nonprofit arts organizations to manage tickets sales and demographic information. The software developer has set up these monthly calls to discuss progress on the system. Today, the developer is taking the group through an online presentation to introduce the web site and interface for the system. It's impressive and seems easy to use. The developer declares he is confident that the system will be up and running in time for three performing arts groups to use it for ticket sales next season.

11:35 a.m.: Step out the door with your boss for a meal at the Chinese restaurant down the block. This is a periodic lunch he schedules so that the two of you can catch up on things outside of weekly staff meetings. You spend most of the lunch describing the presentation by the software developer. Your boss asks if you could arrange a one-on-one meeting with him and the developer so that he can see the system for himself.

You two also discuss the upcoming planning retreat with the board of trustees. The foundation is entering the third year of its five-year strategic plan and the board has asked each of the four program teams to schedule a daylong retreat to discuss progress toward goals and lessons learned. Your boss wants you to give a presentation focused on various projects you are managing, including the performing arts report and various efforts to assist groups with audience development and marketing.

1:15 p.m.: Get back to your office to make a few more phone calls. You catch up with the development directors for two different organizations--a youth orchestra and an art gallery focused on displaying work by at-risk children--and schedule site visits. You also get in touch with the professor from New York University, who is about to catch the train down for a town hall meeting you have helped organize. The meeting is an outgrowth of the report project and is meant to bring urban planning experts and economists, city officials and leaders from the arts community together to discuss the impact of urban revitalization efforts on arts and culture institutions in the city. You assure the professor that he does not need to prepare extensive opening remarks but rather should be prepared to answer questions from the audience. He asks if you can join him for dinner beforehand, but you decline. You just don't think you have time today, especially since you need to try and review a couple of letters of inquiry today and tomorrow.

You notice that while you have been on the phone, you've received three voice mail messages. You don't have time to review them now, since you're a little late for a meeting.

2:05 p.m.: Run down the stairs for a meeting in the conference room on the Regional Arts and Culture Information Project. A group of five funders, including your foundation, have joined officials at local art councils and state cultural agencies to create a new mechanism for capturing demographic information about audiences that attend art events, as well as financial data from arts organization to gauge their health and growth. Unfortunately, the project is going slowly. The group has spent many weeks deliberating on what kind of data to compile, a conversation that you think should happen later once you have hired a contractor to design the system. And now the group is struggling to put together a request for proposals in order to hire the contractor. Once again, the team reviews the draft request, which has gone through at least ten iterations. It looks like everyone is finally ready to sign off on it, and you now hope the project can now move along at a faster pace.

3:45 p.m.: Return to your office and review your voice mail messages. None of them are urgent, so you decide to focus on the draft letter of intent you received yesterday. It's from a fledgling performing arts groups focused on incubating new theater and dance pieces. Six months ago, you read a glowing review in the local paper of one of their workshop productions and attended. You were impressed with the quality of the work and the sophistication of the production. You spoke to the artistic director after the performance and again, you were impressed by her level of sophistication, especially since you guessed she wasn't yet 30. After inviting her to your office for a longer conversation about the direction she wants to take the organization, you asked her to submit a letter of intent.

The basic concept described in the letter is exciting; the organization wants to link up with the local theater fringe festival to showcase new work and then promote those productions that are successful at the festival to other local theater and dance companies. Unfortunately, the letter is poorly written and riddled with typos. And the artistic director doesn't seem to quite understand what an outcome measure is. You just don't think the letter will make it through the first step of the review process. You decide to give the artistic director a call to talk about the possibility of a small planning grant for the organization; perhaps you can help them hire some contractors to help with fundraising efforts. You also make a note to talk with your colleague at another foundation with a technical assistance fund for small arts organizations.

4:35 p.m.: Leave the office in order to grab the train to the city. You should be able to get to the central library, where the town meeting is to be held, with just enough time to grab a sandwich beforehand.

5:30 p.m.: Arrive at the library full from a triple-decker sandwich from a nearby deli. The meeting starts in a half-hour, and you see that the panelists and a number of your colleagues from other foundations have arrived. You chitchat outside the meeting hall for a bit with your professor friend from New York University and a colleague from a community foundation. The primary host of the meeting, the president of the Cultural Alliance, takes the professor away to get fitted for a microphone. You and your friend from the community foundation complain a bit about the meeting earlier this afternoon. She is part of the team leading the Regional Arts and Cultural Information Project and is just as frustrated as you that it's taking so long just to hire a contractor. As more people arrive, you two separate to shake hands with various participants, most of whom are grantees. But you're pleased to see that members of the local actor's union have come, as well as some local store owners and one of the big real estate developers in the area.

6:15 p.m.: Sit down as the town meeting gets underway. It's starting a bit late, but that's largely to accommodate a large crowd who came in at the last minute. The large meeting hall is three-quarters full. The discussion is lively and there's some strong statements made against real estate developers. You're glad that the facilitator, the director of the arts administration program at the University of Pittsburgh, is strong and unflappable. There's a rich conversation about the importance of festivals in creating a sense of unity in neighborhoods. The theatre fringe festival and the Get on your Feet Dance Jamboree are mentioned repeatedly--two festivals that your foundation has funded since their start.

7:50 p.m.: Grab a bottle of sparkling water at the drinks table and join the reception. You catch your boss' eye, and he wanders over. He joined the meeting about a half-hour late. He's very excited about the discussion of the theater fringe festival; it's one of his pet projects. You talk to him about the letter of intent you read this afternoon from the small theater group focused on new work. You all discuss ways that the foundation might find some mentoring opportunities for the artistic director around fundraising.

As your boss heads out the door, you catch up with the professor and congratulate him. You two talk a bit about how to build better relations between arts groups and real estate developers. He mentions an initiative in Chicago where the city arts commission worked with local foundations and bankers to convince a real estate developer to set aside a few units of artist housing in a new apartment complex on the south side of the city. The professor wonders out loud if it would be possible to replicate that model elsewhere. You make a mental note to continue this conversation with your boss; perhaps the foundation can find a little money for a study to determine the viability of such a project in this region.

9:15 p.m.: Arrive home after the reception. You're quite full (the hors d'oeuvres were tasty and you had one too many bruschetta) and quite tired. You send a quick e-mail to your boss to remind him that you will be working from home in the morning. You want a little quiet time to review letters of intent without interruption.


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