Blog Post

Centering relationships: What I learned as a program officer

Program Officer Brittney Cavaliere is leaving the foundation to become the program coordinator at Foodshare’s Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions. We will miss her and wish her well. Brittney is deeply invested in the foundation’s mission and built strong relationships with grantees. In this blog post, she shares some lessons she learned in her time in philanthropy and offers suggestions based on her experiences.  

My time at the Connecticut Health Foundation was my first venture into philanthropy. I spent the first part of my career providing direct services to people living with HIV. Working with low-income clients who had many competing needs taught me the importance of building relationships centered on trust and understanding. Coming to the foundation, I sought to ensure that relationships were central to my role as a program officer, and I learned some important lessons along the way.

  1. The power dynamic is real: I vividly remember something Pat Baker, the foundation’s president and CEO, told me in my first week as a program officer: There is an inherent power dynamic that exists between funders and grantees/applicants because funders control the money. It can be tricky to navigate, so you must be attentive to it.

It wasn’t until I began working with grantees that I understood what she really meant. I quickly saw the power dynamic at work in my interactions with long-time grantees and new grantees alike. It was challenging to build trust and understanding when, at the end of the day, the foundation controlled whether or not an organization received needed funding. I recognized how important it was to approach these relationships a little differently, to be more sensitive to the power dynamic at play and explore new ways of building trust. I made it a goal to learn as much as I could from the philanthropic community and grantees to transform the power dynamic. Among the many things I learned was the way even the smallest changes can truly transform the relationship. Some of these small changes I implemented in my role as program officer:

  • When planning a meeting with a grantee, suggesting we meet at their offices rather than having them come to the foundation’s office.
  • When we were developing a new set of application questions, I asked grantees for feedback to ensure they could tell their story effectively using the new framework.
  • Providing space in meetings for applicants to explain how their direct service work fits into the larger work of systems change.

This is a photo of Brittney listening to a ministerial health fellowship meeting.One experience that helped me think about the power dynamic differently was a workshop at the Connecticut Council on Philanthropy’s annual conference. The presenters outlined three key ways to transform the power dynamic through a framework they call Power Moves.  I urge grantmakers to review the Power Moves tenets and consider how their institutions can change the power dynamic with their grantees to build stronger, more reciprocal relationships. This can help funders learn about applicants in ways that serve both organizations, including recognizing when an organization that might not seem like a natural fit could be a strong grantee.

  1. The traditional method of grantmaking doesn’t work for everyone: Foundations traditionally use a process in which applicants submit written grant proposals to a committee at the foundation to review and ultimately approve or decline. This method relies on strong, clear, and concise writing.

This process can result in smaller, grassroots organizations being at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving funding opportunities. Those smaller organizations often have the closest ties to their communities, but because they don’t always have formal or full time grant writers and may not be able to respond to a demanding grant proposal or reporting schedule, they are sometimes overlooked in the traditional grantmaking process. For these organizations, a more flexible grant process can remove some of the obstacles. Some ideas include:

  • Providing general operating support grants in place of project-specific grants
  • Offering grant writing classes to future applicants
  • Hosting a pitch day where applicants can verbally present their ideas

I urge grantmakers to consider how your grantmaking process can perpetuate inequitable funding, leaving behind organizations led by people of color, including those doing important work in the communities philanthropy aims to reach. Relying on the traditional process puts you at risk of missing out on organizations doing the key work that philanthropy should be funding.

  1. There is always space to learn more from grantees and applicants: While foundations have expertise in their funding areas, organizations on the ground are the best experts on the needs of their communities. They see firsthand the needs of the people they work with, and better understand the local context.

One of my grant portfolios focused creating sustainable linkages between clinical care providers and community-based organizations. Of the five grants in this category, it was clear that the local context for each differed – whether it was the relationships between organizations and health care providers, or what each organization prioritized to address for their residents. As such, a one-size fits all approach to a solution or intervention sometimes needs to be transformed into a one-size fits all approach with exceptions. The organizations we fund are the best experts, and philanthropy should make every effort to invite them to decision-making tables. Perhaps invite them to help develop a new request for proposals or consult with them when developing your next strategic plan. Whatever direction you take, build in enough interaction with those doing the work so you’ll get frequent reminders that philanthropy doesn’t operate in a vacuum and does not have all the answers.

As I move to a new field, I take with me these lessons on the importance of recognizing differences in power and privilege in building authentic relationships. I am ever grateful for the grantees and applicants who helped teach me, who shared themselves and their work with me, and who reminded me that equity must always be at the forefront. I am also thankful for the great team at the Connecticut Health Foundation who inspire me to dream big, to think critically, and to always remember that health equity and racial equity can be achieved.