How to Get a Job at a Foundation

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?

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (21)

  • As a former foundation executive at the vice-president level, I really enjoyed this article because I constantly had people requesting meetings with me to learn how they could work at a foundation. Even after a number of years from my departure, I still get those questions. The article has good, practical and real advice. More than any other type of nonprofit (and they are also nonprofits) foundations hire people they know, who they believe will fit with the culture of the organization. I have been amazed at how many people who don't have a clue about running a nonprofit (or developing and delivery programs) wind up in program officer and executive director positions. Many have no prior nonprofit experience. The implication, to me, is that "it doesn't take much" to learn about this stuff -- you know, the nonprofit world is so simple! The lure of working for a foundation is especially strong for those of us who have spent years raising money -- and I would say it is a luxury to be part of the process of giving away money rather than raising it. The most important advice I would give someone who enters the foundation world is "don't let it go to your head." When you work at a foundation, everyone thinks you have good ideas, everyone thinks your jokes are funny, everyone returns your calls. You can develop a false sense of self-importance very easily. For all of us not working in foundations, don't ever feel sorry for those who talk about "making hard decisions" around grantmaking. It's a piece of cake compared to the really hard work that hundreds of thousands of "real" nonprofit staff do every day.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • I was a program officer at a large foundation and am now working again at a small non-profit (non-foundation non-profit). Prior to becoming a program officer, I spent 13 years at small and medium sized non-profits in my field in development and program positions. Before going to the foundation, I shared the popular view among practitioners that program officers didn't really know what it was like on the ground and that this made them an annoying, arrogant crowd that was just another hurdle to get over to acquire funding. Of course, there are all types of program officers and some do fit the above description. However, what I did learn in the foundation world was that the field also has an abundance of thoughtful, knowledgeable, passionate people who care about the issues as much as the people "on the ground." And, that... is a key quality of a good program officer. Some of those people had years of "on the ground" experience, some had more academic, policy-focused, or theoretical backgrounds. And, some had both. There is no prescribed background that guarantees a good program officer. For example, those of us who spend years on the ground can become mired in the day-to-day challenges of our non-profit, with not much opportunity to spend examining the big picture of the field. At no fault of our own, we may not devote much time to looking at field-wide policies or trends. We don't have the money to travel the country or the world to search for best practices. People who have spent significant time in the academic, policy-focused or theoretical spheres of the And the knowledge that comes from this can be incredibly valuable to a field, to grantees, and to the practice of grant making. So, a program officer with this background can be extremely effective, if he/she combines it with humility and openness to learning about the "on the ground" aspects of which he/she is less familiar. This winning combination of expertise, humility and openness to learning goes for those who come with "on the ground" expertise, as well. That goes to what I think makes a great program officer. Getting the job is another matter and depends on the foundation. Much of what is said in this article is true. Like many other fields unfortunately, sometimes it is just who you know. I think that this has been changing with the professionalization of the philanthropy field. But, there is still improvement to be made. What I would say, however, is that if you are working in a non-profit and hope to someday work in a foundation, make sure you don't have the "annoying, arrogant crowd" opinion of foundation staff. And, show interest in the field as a whole. Attend conferences and seminars on field-wide topics where you can meet foundation staff. Get involved in field-wide initatives in your region.You will find foundation staff there. When you talk to foundation staff show your passion. Be confident in your knowledge, and curious about what you may know less about. And, by all means, if you get a foundation job, be a model foundation employee: knowledgeable, passionate, and humble.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • I am a sociocultural anthropologist with an academic, policy-oriented background, and years of experience working on-the-ground with and alongside community associations and non-profit organizations. I am currently seeking a program officer position with a foundation but am having trouble convincing hiring managers that I have transferable skills. It was gratifying to hear that an academic background, on-the-ground experience, and desire for lifelong learning are in fact desirable characteristics in a program manager. Thank you for sharing your insight.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • I have to agree with Anonymous. It has long been a source of frustration to me and the development experts I know that foundations don't seem to be interested in hiring folks with development experience. Good development professionals have a keen sense of what it takes to make a program go, and how to differentiate between potentially strong and weak programs. You'd think that sort of expertise would be top on the list of a foundation that wants to make a difference.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • From another ex-Foundation staffer, I'd add that Program Officers are often those who "shine" in their previous fields, but not so much that they could be considered subversive or too difficult to manage! Most foundations value loyalty over real creativity and independence. I think the same goes for foundation CEOs, only more so.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • "...but not so much that they could be considered subversive or too difficult to manage!" Smart companies/foundations would find these people LEADERS.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • Great point and you made me smile. Thanks! Jan Masaoka

    Aug 09, 2011
  • GREAT read on “How to Get a Job at a Foundation” And, most appreciate your (painfully?) honest citation of Vincent Robinson’s observation RE those who raise funds. Particularly admire your candor when you write, “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.”  (Sadly, often too true; yet, few are brave enough to actually attach their name to that thought, to be the one to say that the Emperor ‘has no clothes.’) Although, I’m not at all surprised that it’s you to have stated it so boldly. I’ll be passing this one around to many others across the US.  Sincere thanks for making my Tuesday a.m. Erick Swenson

    Aug 09, 2011
  • This article is really insightful and many of the pointers offer a look behind the velvet rope. -- a program officer

    Aug 09, 2011
  • For Ms. Camerena and Vincent Robinson, I would say Au Contraire! In the Rocky Mountain region throughout my career, I have seen individuals move in and out of nonprofit grantee positions and into foundation positions and out again. As a local funder and a philanthropy professional who has spent many years in the trenches, I have seen some fairly insular behavior among some foundation professionals.But, the instances of this would not lead me to generalize about career paths for fund development professionals to foundations.. I would hesitate to say that foundation careers are off limits to fund development professionals. And, I would be interested to hear the opinions of leadership with AFP or CFRE about career movement to foundations. Molly Cannon Stevenson, CFRE, CAHP

    Aug 09, 2011
  • What a good article. It was so interesting to hear that foundations are not interested in development staff and I must also make the case that good development staff know nonprofits inside out. They often have a much broader perspective than program staff who focus primarily on their areas of concentration. But I think most of us know that it is a pretty closed field and although they do advertise for positions frequently, much of the hiring is an inside job. I've also noticed when checking the background of many foundation professionals that law degrees and public policy degrees are highly prized, as is that all important Ivy League education. But that said, some of the smartest and most creative program directors I've worked with have been hand picked from well-run nonprofits. Bravo!

    Aug 09, 2011
  • As a part time development staff member and graduate student looking to transition back to the foundation and grant management world, I found this article to be true and it hit close to home. When I got my previous foundation job (we received grants and also sub-granted them out) a few years back I had no experience with grants and transitioned from another role at the same organization. The past two people that foundation has hired to fill the role I held were also hired in a similar fashion - no grants experience but people we had worked with in the community. Once you start working in the grants world and with grantors you do start making valuable connections though. I've used some of the grantors I used to work with as references - often times I had to be more accountable to them than my own employer so my quality of work with them mattered and has helped move me along. Grants administration can be a great way to build those relationships with funders.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • It's well documented that there has been zero growth in foundation hires of people of color over the decades while savvy Fortune 500 companies continue to increase their diversity ranks for the simple reason that it improves their strategies and sales. When legally challenged to add diverse board and staff in California, a coterie of top foundations instead made large grants to develop leadership of color within other nonprofits. The comfort with insiders, attended the same college, need to speak conventional business English beliefs that seem to stymie nonprofit professional hires (including in fundraising) continue to blindside foundations and limit their effectiveness. Until people with money become comfortable being equals with those who don't have it and didn't come from it, this will continue to be an issue. After 27 years of consulting on diversity in philanthropy I am not overly optimistic about change in this direction. Yes, there will be changes in appearance, but in social class? Not so much. Despite all that, we will make no progress at all unless talented diverse professionals and their allies continue calling out the ongoing bias, while working twice as hard as whites to get the same position, and taking the time to mentor others. Hooray for all who have the courage to speak out on the "invisible" class system that rules the private foundation world, and most larger US based nonprofits.Celebrate CompassPoint and the handful of exceptional organizations that make diversity a priority not in order to "do good" but in order to stay relevant. Maria Gitin, CFRE

    Aug 09, 2011
  • I am the one who wrote earlier who has worked for a foundation and on the ground non-profits. Your comments are very true. There is a shameful lack of diversity in general on foundation program staffs (boards, too). A truly ironic fact given the funding interests of many foundations. There is definately a class issue at play and many of the large foundations place a premium on educational pedigree. Valuing education is certainly not a bad thing, but when that emphasis ends up eliminating anyone who does not belong to that hallowed group, then you have classism. Unfortunately, too many influential foundations end up there.

    Aug 10, 2011
  • A cautionary tale: I worked for a family foundation for three years, the result of a proposal I sent to the patriarch who created the foundation. I had met him through consulting work for another non-profit. He was self-made, an attorney by training who became an entrepreneur - oil, gas, yachts, communications, etc. and was a cranky, opinionated sort, but after 20 years in fundraising, I was accustomed to prickly rich folks and was sure that I had found my niche and dived in - traveling the northeast and doing hundreds of interviews, generating reports identifying problems and solutions, bringing together experts from all over the nation, and selling the program to those in need. First mistake, I assumed that proposal - backed by 30 years of experience - would give me the lead in shaping the program. Not so. His successes in life - and he was bloody rich - made him THE expert on pretty much everything, and when I tried to make course corrections when he headed off on a potentially disastrous course, he got peeved. After three years and some heated discussions about the proper course for the foundation programs, I got canned. Now while it is, in the end, my fault, it was a painful lesson in the politics (intrigue?) of the family foundation. Be careful what you wish for.

    Aug 10, 2011
  • Wow, lot of snark, not much balance. I am now the head of a Community Foundation and to get there spent 15 years in public welfare (child protective and foster care work) and another 16 running a medium sized AIDS organization. I was hired precisely because I was "someone who understands our grantees and their issues.'" And while I may not work long hours saving individuals or writing grants (I paid my dues for 31 years doing both those things) I do work long hours meeting with donors to raise money so I can help fund those folks who do that work (among many other things.)

    Aug 11, 2011
  • I have spent 14 years in the community foundation field. It's a very different type of foundation than those described in the article. For one thing, fundraising is a very valued skill!!! I think the community foundation sector is a wonderful place to work and I still find it interesting and challenging. I received my first program officer job as a result of a site visit. The local community foundation provided a grant to the Planned Parenthood clinic I ran. The CF's Executive Director did a site visit as a follow-up to the grant. I must have made a positive impression. When he decided to hire his first salaried program office (this was a small CF at the time), he called me and asked me if I was interested in applying. I never would have applied had he not made the suggestion since I had no experience in grantmaking or philanthropy. I am grateful that he called me. I've had a good career and plan to be in the community foundation sector another 20 years (hopefully!). After 8 years of grantmaking, I moved to another CF and do very different work developing new community foundations and providing technical assistance to the existing CF affiliates in our state. I have had opportunities to go back into grantmaking and decided against it. Grantmaking is not as fun as it seems. It's frustrating because you never have enough money to do what you want to do. Plus, it's very bureaucratic and it gets boring. I was so sick of reading grant proposals. I loved the site visits, but reviewing proposals is tedious and the administrative tasks around grantmaking are considerable, especially if you don't have support staff to help. Plus, I didn't enjoy the fact that applicants really just need operating support and have to package their existing programs to make them fit the foundation's criteria, i.e. something new and different. Grantees never achieve what they say they will and true evaluation (versus grant monitoring) is really impossible to do most of the time.

    Aug 13, 2011
  • Just a note to say that even once you're IN the foundation world, all these norms still apply. Movement WITHIN the sector is equally as often based on who you know. Additionally, as a program officer for the past 10 years at a community foundation, I have found that other types of foundations have little interest in my experience. It is typically considered not elite or specialized enough. Community foundations and private/corporate foundations are totally, completely different, in my experience. It is slightly troubling to me that *program area* expertise is more highly valued than actual experience in grantmaking. When organizations complain about arrogant program officers, that tells me that those program officers don't know anything about *grantmaking*. They may know a lot about a particular issue, and therefore consider themselves the experts, but clearly they do not know that truly effective grantmaking practices include listening, compassionate communication, collaborating and facilitating the success of vital grantees. These "soft" skills are nonetheless critically important to the profession, and too often overlooked, in my opinion. Contrary to what many believe, *good* grantmaking does require a particular set of skills, knowledge and abilities...just the same way that jobs in marketing, HR, accounting, or fundraising do. Also- the overall diversity of foundation staff IS abysmal. No question. I highly recommend the book "Effective Philanthropy" by Capek & Mead to learn more.

    Aug 18, 2011
  • As a community foundation CEO, I agree with my colleagues that this article, while an interesting one, paints too broad a brush. Without statistics at hand, I'd say the norm in community foundations is to hire from the nonprofit sector, with a particular emphasis on development folks. I did not come that route (though I had been a fundraiser many years earlier). The other piece of advice I'd add is to seek an internship (undergraduate or graduate) in a foundation. We have a good track record of hiring or placing our interns with other foundations.

    Aug 21, 2011
  • Wow. Why would hiring development staff be rare? It's valuable to have folks on staff who understand "the other side" as well as the issues of the communities served. If that's true, foundations are missing out on a lot of people who know how to write, work with community organizations, other funders and government personnel. Too bad.

    Sep 23, 2011
  • Wow, this article was most definitely eye opening. However, I found the comments to be even more informative. Honestly, how many times are you going to find a person/potential hire who is related to or the trusted friend or advisor of the founder, president or CEO. Not often. I don't want to sound naive but it's a bit disheartening and unfortunate to think that professionals with the necessary skills, passion and expertise are not even really considered for these positions. The previously posted comments have definitely given me much to think about on my quest to find a fulfilling career in the world of philanthropy.

    Aug 23, 2014

Leave a comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <small> <sup> <sub> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <img> <br> <br/> <p> <div> <span> <b> <i> <pre> <img> <u><strike>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.