If you’ve spent any time as a social entrepreneur or running a non-profit, you’ve had a conversation with a foundation program officer. If you’ve spoken with more than one program officer, you no doubt have had at least one bad experience. I could spend several posts developing a taxonomy of program officers you’d rather not deal with…ever.

But hard as it may be to muster after several negative encounters, program officers deserve our sympathy. Why? Because they have the worst job in the world. Or at least the most spiritually destructive job in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: “I should have it so hard,” or “Cry me a river.” On the surface, foundation program officer seems like it would be the cushiest of jobs. Generally well-paid, with terrific benefits and one of the last professions with actual 9-5 hours, their job is to give away money. How hard can it be?

Consider for instance the large body of research that shows the amazing benefits of altruism. Study after study has documented that being generous, giving away money or time, yields dramatic benefits. The generous are happier, healthier, live longer, have more satisfying relationships, are less likely to experience depression or addiction. The list goes on. But unfortunately for the program officer, these benefits only accrue when you are giving away your own money. So all the work that program officers do, ultimately works to the benefit of others. They reap none of the psycho-social rewards of altruism.

On the other hand, a similar body of research shows how destructive psycho-socially it is to be put in a position of power and control, where the people you encounter are filled only with praise and smiles. Think for a moment of the disastrous lives of most celebrities. People in this position tend to develop personality disorders, are far more likely to divorce, to experience depression, to have trouble trusting anyone, to have difficulty taking joy in daily life. Of course, we who have been on the “asking for money” side of the table tend to treat program officers in ways that reinforce these negative effects. You praise their wisdom and insight, agree that they are right, jump through whatever hoops they put in front of you with nary a complaint—all with a cheerful smile.

The net results is that program officers get all the worst of being wealthy and none of the best. It’s almost as if being a program officer is like finding the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings novels. You gain amazing powers and innumerable friends. But if you’re not very careful you lose your soul.

So the next time you’re dealing with a difficult program officer, rather than silently complaining about what a terrible person they are, marvel that they don’t actually look like Gollum. Yet. And thank your lucky stars that you haven’t fallen under the spell of the One Ring. Yet.


Read more stories by Timothy Ogden.