Q. I would like to provide management assistance to charities to help them build stronger programs, and also review programs' requests for funding. How can I prepare to become a program officer for a foundation?
A. Program officers often take many paths to their jobs. To prepare, gain as much experience as you can in a specific nonprofit field, such as children's health or the environment. "Program officers usually come to foundations after pursuing careers in academia, public charities, or agencies. Foundations hire us because we have deep knowledge and expertise in a particular area," says Susan M. Fitzpatrick, vice president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, in St. Louis, which supports scientific research and scholarship.
One of the best ways to gain that expertise is to wear as many hats as possible within the field where you hope to supervise grant making, and preferably gain some experience outside of the program arena, says Michael Fleming, program director of the David Bohnett Foundation, in Los Angeles, which supports social activism, especially gay and lesbian advocacy. "I would suggest to you that the most effective program officers I know came to their jobs with years of experience doing something other than giving money away," he says. "If you really want to give to community-based organizations, nothing will prepare you better than to work in the trenches for those very agencies today."
You should also add nuts-and-bolts nonprofit management experience to your expertise in a particular area of philanthropy, says David M. Zemel, senior program officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, in Tulsa, Okla., which supports Jewish philanthropy. "When I'm looking to add to our staff," says Mr. Zemel, "I look for people in one of two categories: people with a great deal of experience and expertise in a specific field that's a foundation priority, or people with broad nonprofit experience that includes fund raising, direct services, agency management, and grant making."
Prospective program officers' training in nonprofit management skills should include a grounding in the legal issues that apply to their area of specialty. "Knowing a little something about training also helps," Mr. Zemel adds. "Volunteers provide hundreds of billions of dollars of time to nonprofits, and the need to train and retrain laypeople in direct service, management, and governance is never-ending."
Finally, be aware that management assistance and reviewing proposals are often projects that foundations hire consultants to do, says Mr. Zemel, so you might find that your specific interests are not handled by a program officer. "Technical assistance is what staff workers and program assistants provide," says Ms. Fitzpatrick. "The technical aspect of philanthropy is a sidelight."