Last autumn I was fortunate enough to visit our regional office in Delhi and accompany Think Tank Initiative (TTI) program officers (affectionately called POs) on their monitoring visits of the think tanks that TTI supports. These visits usually happen once or twice a year; the POs spend a day at the think tanks’ offices and meet all staff including, management and governing boards, as well as non-research and research staff members. The monitoring visit provides a formal, structured opportunity for the POs to take stock of where think tanks are in the process of achieving the organizational objectives they have established for themselves to strengthen their overall organisational effectiveness.

Editor’s note: This post is the first in a blog series on Program Officer accompaniment, edited by Shannon Sutton. 

To the naked eye, these types of visit might appear to be a fairly transactional and typical “donor-grantee” interaction. I was expecting heavily bureaucratic and slightly stifled conversations about outputs and impacts with a clear top-down hierarchy.

What I witnessed was completely different. Not much has been written on the importance of program officers to guide and accompany the organization that their grant supports. However international development practitioners will be familiar with this accompaniment model, particularly when capacity building support is provided in addition to funding. In the case of TTI POs, they take this model to the next level. With some of them having worked with the think tanks for almost ten years, their relationship with the organization has morphed from one that simply deals with accountability requirements to one of trust and strategic learning.

A support system based on trust

What I observed was a real exchange of ideas, frank conversations on strategic positioning, a support system for the management, and a collaborative spirit to learn between the organization and the PO. During the monitoring visit, the discussions were open and productive, and a sense of trust emanated from the exchanges. These social relationships, based on trust, are invaluable in implementing a program of this kind both across the cohort of think tanks and in terms of engagement within the wider context where the think tanks operate. In general, the PO had managed to forge a close relationship with the executive director and senior researchers of the organization, and in some cases, even with board members.

This level of trust between the PO and the executive director is important because it allows the PO to both raise difficult questions and helps find feasible solutions to operational and policy issues with the executive director and Board members in a constructive manner. Acknowledgement of organizational and other vulnerabilities and an open exchange of views and hard questions on both sides is not just an effective way to tackle challenges – it also makes way for learning for both sides about more effective ways of leveraging core funding, a core element of TTI’s approach, for future sustainability. Being able to have an open discussion about what the PO sees as a potential shortcoming in the way the organization is managed is key in paving the way to organizational capacity building.

An objective counsel

At the monitoring visits I attended, the executive directors were open about the shortcoming of their organizations, talking openly about vulnerabilities and challenges and seeking advice from the PO. POs are not prescriptive in their advice. Instead they act as a sounding board for new ideas, opportunities and potential challenges, helping executive directors and team leaders think through their plans with a trusted, external audience. They listen and suggest alternatives where appropriate but ultimately leave it to the organization to make the right decision for themselves. In my view, this is where the trust comes from; the space where think tanks get to make independent but informed decisions using a peer-support approach, which puts the success envisaged by the organization at the heart of all advice, support, evidence and constructive criticism provided.

Another added value of the PO is that they bring an external outlook to the executive director. Indeed, TTI POs, for example, do not only accompany one or two think tanks, but around a dozen on average. This allows them to identify different management, research and policy engagement practices across organizations and countries, see what has worked for other think tanks in similar contexts and offer this knowledge as needed. POs encourage peer learning and collaboration by linking think tanks with specific needs to relevant expertise available elsewhere within the cohort. This enables think tanks to learn from their peers, share experiences and help each other face challenges.

Learning from each other

What I saw during these monitoring visits was not a donor visiting a grantee but a trusted colleague visiting a peer to discuss pathways to achieving a fully-owned, common organisational vision. Ahead of one monitoring visit, the PO warned me that this visit might run a bit longer than your average monitoring visit. They told me that last time they visited that organization, they left the office at 8pm. Seeing the look of shock on my face, they quickly specified that it was only because they and the executive director had lost track of time catching up on all the news and ideas on the organization’s future projects. For them, the monitoring visit was not simply a necessary monitoring activity but an opportunity to learn about the ground realities of running a respected organisation, valued for its independent thought and credible work.

After this experience, PO accompaniment took on a different meaning for me; moving beyond the simple due diligence aspect of grant management, I see it now as an essential element of any program which seeks to improve organizational performance. In fact, I would argue that one of the main successes of the TTI program has been its PO accompaniment model. This has been an important factor behind sustained improvements in organizational performance and the creation of networks across the cohorts due to the PO acting as a link between organizations.

Of course for PO accompaniment to truly work – and not to tout our own POs – one needs completely dedicated and engaged program officers. These types of relationships do not build themselves in a vacuum or overnight but out of a real commitment, from both the think tank leadership and the program officer, to the success of the program. Here at TTI, we have been lucky enough to have incredible POs, some of whom have been with the program since the beginning, who know the organizations they oversee sometimes better than the organisations themselves and are the real capacity building experts.