Interview: Brian Paulson, Program Officer; Pohlad Family Foundation

by Daniel Gerdes, Program Associate, The Pohlad Family Foundation

I wanted to bring a different perspective to the VISTA blog for this post. We talk about the perspective of our nonprofit sites or our personal experiences as VISTAs but we rarely hear about the world of philanthropy; a major source of support for nonprofits.  So, I decided to interview my  supervisor, Brian Paulson, to get his opinion on philanthropy and foundations, the impact philanthropy has in the nonprofit sector, and the challenges facing philanthropy today. After working with Brian for 10 months, I have come to value his dedication to improving the way foundations work with their grantees while keeping his work people-centered.

Brian’s values-based, goal-oriented leadership in Minnesota’s philanthropic community has led to more transparency between workforce service providers and funders, increased alignment on workforce outcome measurements across funding streams, and an expansion of programs that serve under-and-unemployed people in Minnesota.

Brian Paulson is a Program Officer at the Pohlad Family   Foundation. He  currently oversees the Foundation’s Youth Advancement grant program  which  funds organizations and and community efforts that make a positive contribution toward lowering the number of disconnected youth in the Twin Cities region.

  1. What do you find to be the most rewarding part of your job as a Program Officer?
    I get to be involved in great work in our community that is mission based.  We’re tremendously fortunate in the Twin Cities to have such a robust charitable sector – I feel fortunate to be a part and get to work with such great people and organizations.
  1. What do you believe is the most important or impactful part of your work as a Program Officer?
    Knowing that resources (time, money, knowledge) are being used in the most impactful/effective way possible – given that need exceeds resources.  There are so many different directions we could go and so many great things to be a part of; how we effectively navigate opportunities while staying focused on goals and values of the foundation, and of the family we work for, is important. Also important is that we don’t simply limit our strategies (tools in the toolbox) to just the financial support we can provide – there is tons of opportunity in shared learning, greater collaboration, and working with others around a common community objective.
  1. Where, in the community, do you believe your work has the greatest impact (organization level, system level, participant level, a mix)? What impact or contribution has been most evident thus far in your career?
    Tough question.  I think I would say it has been an ability to be clear on purpose with the programs that I have managed – which I believe has made me more effective in my contribution to larger community needs. One of my favorite sayings is “it becomes easier to say no when you’re clear on what you say yes to.”  I see that tying to values and priorities – which then helps in determining where you focus your energy and resource.  This has allowed me to be involved in efforts at the individual, mezzo and macro level – that I feel are complimentary and beneficial at all levels (while it is working at multiple levels – I feel there is still focus – such as the one we have with Opportunity Youth in our Youth Advancement Program).  In the programs I’ve managed – I feel I’ve been effective at clearly understanding the “for whom and to what end,” then working to find partners who have common interests.
  1. What is the most challenging problem/issue facing the field of philanthropy right now? How does it affect funders’ ability to realize the outcomes they wish to achieve?
    Even tougher question! Lots of challenges – but the one that I’ve been grappling with is results, accountability and transparency – and not so much as it pertains to grantees – but more so to us as a field (philanthropy). What results are we trying to drive, how would we know them if we saw them, what are we accountable to in our contribution to larger community results, and how are we clear and transparent with how and when we get involved?  Ultimately – I think, collectively, we have to be accountable to knowing people are actually better off as a result of our work – how we determine this is really hard (for lots of reasons – like “who determines what measures matter; what are the right measures of well-being; how do we exercise focus but provide holistic support; how do we avoid becoming prescriptive in the process; how do we look to community to determine the best “means” while understanding “what works” across communities?)
  1. What is something you would change about the work of philanthropy to help funders become even more effective change makers?
    Another tough one! I think the change would be tied to the challenges I already mentioned.  When I worked in nonprofits I saw foundations as fairly mysterious – which is just about the LAST thing I think we should be.  This ties to transparency (beyond our IRS 990 tax form) to be clear on mission, values, priorities, goals and how we forward these objectives, often through others.  I think this also ties to good community relationships and being respectful of others, knowing what you’re about, what you’re accountable to, and how you’re adding value. I’m also a big fan of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and their “Smarter Grantmaking” tools/resources.  There are lots of really great resources and things we have incorporated in our work at Pohlad Foundation and that the field is increasingly adopting.
  1. What can foundations and nonprofits do right now to better measure their impact/outcomes?
    Learn together and get to a common understanding of language, outcomes, and the activities that drive those outcomes. The work MSPWin is doing makes a ton of sense and is a good example from my point of view. Convening funders – both public and private – with nonprofit practitioners to develop a common language around results (using Results Based Accountability), working together to measure outcomes, then working to understand the activities that are leading to good outcomes; including “for whom” these programs are working. We don’t do enough of this in our field – working across philanthropy, government, nonprofits and service providers to really understand common interests, develop common language, build common agendas, and set specific goals for which we each have a role.