On September 20, 2009, I walked into the Hewlett Foundation as a brand new program officer in our Global Development and Population Program. Exactly eight years and some 265 grants later, I would “graduate” from the position and the foundation.
The Hewlett Foundation is pretty unique among foundations to set term limits for program staff. Many worry this system creates uncertainty for grantees or loss of institutional knowledge. But I’m convinced that term limits are absolutely great for everyone involved: the person leaving, the foundation, the grantees, and the broader field (in my case, expanding women’s economic and reproductive choices).
For the program officer
Term limits can provide more career stability for an individual. Hewlett Foundation’s eight-year term encourages program staff to think of their tenure as an arc — there’s a period of learning, then figuring out what you want to achieve during the term, then working on those things, and finally looking ahead to handing off the grant portfolio to someone else. Without this structure, I probably would have approached the program officer role with an annual plan, and may have started looking around at other job opportunities sooner.
Term limits also mean you get to have an open and transparent transition, with the full support of the institution. Instead of job searching in secret, and interviewing while “taking some personal time,” you can explore next steps with the advice of your colleagues. I had two rounds of interviews at Hewlett while working full time at my previous organization; this is so much better.
For the grantees
We all know power dynamics exist between funders and grantees. Being a funder is a privileged position. Knowing my time as a funder was capped made me a more empathetic and respectful partner for my grantees. Understanding I was a temporary steward of the incredible resources we have at the foundation has kept the power from going to my head. Instead, I tried to seek honest feedback from grantees and reflect on how I can be a more effective supporter of their work.
For the foundation
Perhaps the best thing about term limits is getting new perspectives. We work on long-term problems with many potential solutions in ever-changing contexts. Studies have shown that people value what they themselves have built more (like IKEA furniture). I’d like to think I could be objective about the strategies I have helped to develop and spent time implementing. External evaluations and challenging questions from colleagues certainly help. But it would also be easy to fall into the trap of confirmation bias, and stick with a grantee or strategy longer than one should, without considering a change in course. New program staff can look at things with fresh eyes so that the foundation can continue to make deliberate, strategic choices.
If we acknowledge that foundations are a privileged place, term limits can help them be more inclusive about how to share that privilege. I wouldn’t have had the fortune of working here had my predecessor, Tamara Fox, not termed out. As a first generation immigrant, I didn’t even know foundations existed until embarrassingly late in life. The Hewlett Foundation has been hard at work for the past couple of years on defining what diversity, equity and inclusion mean for us, and how we put that into practice. Term limits create a regular process for being more inclusive through our hiring practices.
Term limits also help the foundation plan transitions. Any change can be disruptive, and staff transitions can be especially hard. Knowing the end date of a program staff’s term means we can all approach grantmaking timelines, recruitments, and communication with a bit more predictability. For my own portfolio, I processed the bulk of my grants by July, closed out grants from prior strategies, and documented near term decisions. I’m fortunate to have my successor, Althea Anderson, overlap with me by a few weeks so we can ensure a smooth transition.
For the field and the people our grants support
Term limits benefit the fields we work in, too. In light of the funder-grantee dynamic — if term limits can make foundation program staff be a bit more humble, respectful and empathetic, that’s a good thing for grantees. And if grantees feel more empowered to approach program officers about their big ideas or organizational challenges, and get supported to take actions, the broader fields they work in win too, from having more effective organizations and strategies. Ultimately, this should mean our grants help more women have full opportunities to earn a living and choose whether and when to have children.
The term-limit arc provides an opportunity for program officers to think about what impact or legacy they want to leave behind. I’m proud to have worked on areas such as introducing behavioral economics to improve family planning and reproductive health services, and supporting sustainable advocacy capacity building of local organizations. I like to think these big bets have helped the broader field of women’s health, rights and empowerment.
My graduation day
It’s hard to believe today is my last day at the Hewlett Foundation. It’s exciting to have many possibilities for what I’ll do next, but I’m sad to leave behind great colleagues and grantees. I know this isn’t goodbye. I have made many lifelong friends here, and plan to be an active member of the Hewlett alumni network. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that who you work with matters a lot, maybe even more than what you do. So as I look ahead to my next endeavor, working with smart, nice people will be a top criteria.
A common theme in the reflections of exiting program staff is the knowledge gained at the Hewlett Foundation. If “Hewlett University” is such a great place of learning, term limits ensure we have an ever growing alumni base who can and continue to contribute in meaningful ways to the fields we care about. The eight-year term limit is a wonderful structure at the Hewlett Foundation. I hope other foundations would considering adopting it.
I’d like to close with one bit of advice. I found it really hard to respond to: “Do you know what you’re going to do next?” It’s a natural question, but one that either invites a brief stock answer or an hour-long coaching session. My advice is to try this instead: “Let me know if I can be helpful to you as you explore next steps.” Treat a colleague terming out as you would a graduate — because that’s what we are. Help celebrate the successes, reflect on the lessons learned, and be excited for their future.