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How to Get a Job at a Foundation
Jan Masaoka

September, 2011

An old joke: How do you get to become a judge on the Supreme Court?
Answer: Be the college roommate of a future U.S. Senator.

In this article we don't address the pros and cons of foundation jobs (compared with nonprofit jobs), but simply how to go about getting one.

Many nonprofit folks like the idea of working at a foundation...and why not? Foundations jobs typically are easier, pay better, and have better benefits. And, as one person put it, "I'd like to try being the person being sucked up to instead of being the person doing the sucking up."

(We know foundation staff often work hard. We also know it's one thing to work until 10 pm prepping for the foundation trustee meeting and another to work until 10 pm trying desperately to keep a Sudanese mother from being deported away from her children, or writing a grant proposal, that if it's not funded, will mean you have to lay off two staff.)

Like many employers, how foundations say they hire is often different from how they actually go about the hiring process. When we interviewed foundation staff for this article, we asked each two questions: a) what advice should we give to people seeking foundation jobs, and b) how did you get your job?

Most gave similar suggestions about how to get a foundation job, but almost none of them got their own jobs that way. For example, one program officer gave the usual advice about experience in the field, but she herself got her job by coming in as the foundation's human resources manager and was then transferred to grantmaking in a field where she had no prior experience.

Mostly, it seems, foundation program staff and executives get their jobs because of who they know, not necessarily what they know. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to get a program job if you want to make the leap from a community nonprofit and you’re not particularly well connected.

So, how do you get a job at a foundation?

1. Be related to the founding donor. You may have already made the strategic mistake of not being born into the right family or not marrying the right guy. Many foundations -- especially smaller ones -- are staffed by the wives, sisters, nieces, daughters, and granddaughters (and sometimes male relatives) of the founding donor(s). This was the case for two of the country’s wealthiest and most active philanthropies: the Gates Foundation was originally led by Bill Gates' dad; investor Warren Buffett’s 27-year-old grandson (pictured) leads his father's foundation.

2. Be a trusted friend or advisor of the founding donor/family. Many families understandably choose someone they know and trust to help them manage their foundations. Janet Camarena of the Foundation Center says that many foundations are staffed by people known by the donor or donating couple (often the wife) -- for instance, the family's financial advisor, the family's or company's lawyer, or "a mom in the same playgroup."

Maybe our favorite "trusted associate" story: One foundation executive director used to be a wrangler at a dude ranch and she frequently assisted a wealthy family with the care of their horses and helped them on horseback riding trips. She was hired as their first staff in the role of program director. (And she's terrific.)

3. Be a trusted friend, advisor, or employee of a powerbroker in the foundation’s sphere of work. For instance, many foundations concerned with national policy matters often turn to the former staff of influential senators to fill their grantmaking job slots. We know one foundation program director who met the foundation's president in her job at one of the philanthropy affinity groups.

4. Take an entry-level job and move up from there, or an administrative job and move over to grantmaking from there. Consultant Kris Putnam quotes a foundation CEO who once told her: "Philanthropy is a closed world, but once you’re in, you’re in . . . Once you are working at a foundation, you’re seen as an 'insider' and can network with other funders." This may be true even if you haven’t been particularly successful at work. Like managers of professional sports teams, foundation staff have a way of recycling even if they screw up.

Many grantmakers started as grants administrators (keeping track of grants made, payments, report submissions, and so on), administrative assistants, program assistants, and interns. People hired from the inside are more likely to be young and inexperienced. They may have little background with nonprofits and little to no knowledge of the relevant field. (Of course, this is the opposite of what foundations often say they are seeking.)

5. Look at job postings. "Haunt the foundations' websites [for job openings]," suggests Albert Ruesgas, president of the Greater New Orleans Community Foundation. "Do it regularly and frequently, and get your resume in right away. Many people read resumes until they find five they want to interview and stop." So if your resume isn't in the first batch it may never get read.

Be a "polished, cultural fit with the foundation," advises Camarena. "Have social grace. And unless you're applying for a job at the Levi Strauss foundation, don't wear jeans."

See the end of the article for a list of sites that post foundation jobs.

6. For a program officer job, seek jobs where your background in the same field will be a plus. "The smaller community foundations tend to look for generalists while the big foundations tend to look for people with advanced degrees who have worked in a nonprofit for three, four, or five years in the same field, and who already have a network,” says Stephanie McAuliffe of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. "For example, if we're hiring for our marine fisheries program [for responsible fisheries] we might want someone with a master’s in public health who has worked overseas." She also cautions jobseekers to be aware of how few foundation jobs may be available in their field and geographic area.

7. Let funders know you are interested in a foundation job (this is tricky). "I have my eye on several young nonprofit people who I'd like to poach," said one foundation executive. "But I don't want to ask them unless I know they are thinking about leaving." The trick is that you don't want to risk your funding by saying you might leave; but they probably won't think of you as a candidate (for their foundation or for others) otherwise. Try using the word, "someday."

And a few tips:

What about people with backgrounds in fundraising/development?

"The rude truth is that foundations aren't interested in development people," says Camarena. Search consultant Vincent Robinson has a slightly different take: "Foundations that raise money might hire a development director into one of their fundraising positions. And occasionally community foundations want 'someone who understands our grantees and their issues.'" He cautions: "It's very rare, occasional."

What about people of color?

One consultant to philanthropy in New York told us: "All the foundations here have white program officers and black receptionists. And then they talk about diversity and social justice."

Initially, Toya Randall thought this might be true across the board.

"I had an image of what a foundation person looked like," she says: "A middle-aged white man with a briefcase." But Toya is a young African American woman (with a Blackberry) who is now a program director at the Chicago-based Grand Victoria Foundation.

Toya suggests getting to know people in the local chapter of the Association of Black Foundation Executives or in another foundation affinity group; many local chapters have events that are open to non-grantmakers. (National ABFE also has a fellowship program.) She suggests getting involved with any network around smart growth or social justice or whatever field you're in. She herself makes frequent efforts to connect African Americans in nonprofits with foundations . . . so our advice is to get to know someone like Toya!

Resume advice follows the same guidelines you would follow for applying for a non-foundation nonprofit:

  • Take care with your cover letter to make sure it connects your background with the skills and experience being sought, "in a factual, not a marketing way," says Stephanie McAuliffe.
  • No typos! Three grantmakers we interviewed listed this as a significant obstacle.
  • If you're sending by email, put your full name in the subject line of your email: "Jane Doe re: Program Officer position"
  • Ask a grantmaker to submit your resume along with a recommendation.

Here are some locations for online announcements of philanthropy positions:

  • Council on Foundations Career Center. You can also create a "job alert" where job announcements matching your criteria will be emailed to you.
  • Many foundation affinity groups list jobs for their members. In some cases these are posted on the website of the affinity group, but more frequently they are emailed to members. If you have a contact who belongs to an affinity group (such as Grantmakers in the Arts, the Neighborhood Funders group, or Hispanics in Philanthropy), ask if they would forward job announcements to you. There are dozens of these groups; a few are listed here.
  • Some regional associations of grantmakers (RAGs) have job listings for their members. You can find nearby RAGs at the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.
  • The Foundation Center's Job Corner has full-time job openings including both nonprofit and foundation jobs (most seem to be nonprofit jobs).
  • Grantmakers Without Borders has job listings with a focus on international issues, although many listings are for nonprofits, not foundations.
  • Don't forget that many local nonprofit associations have job listings, and foundations may advertise there as well.

Nonprofit folks may look at the foundation world with reactions ranging from envy to distaste. But someone has do the work. Why not you?

Jan Masaoka is Editor of Blue Avocado...a truly great online resource for nonprofits.


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