An Important Window into the Foundation Boardroom

Anne Wallestad

Last week, I had the pleasure of helping to lead a discussion at CEP’s biennial national conference about the critical partnership between foundation CEOs and boards. I was joined by two fantastic leaders from the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF): Kevin Walker, president & CEO (and member of BoardSource’s Board), and Rod Jordan, who recently completed his term as chair of the NWAF Board.

In framing the session, I shared with participants that I hoped we could have a “juicy” conversation about the real-life dynamics of the board-staff partnership. And, thanks to Kevin and Rod’s thoughtful candor about their own experiences, we were able to do just that. We invited participants into a conversation about the inner workings of a foundation board and the unique and critical relationship between boards and executives, surfacing some of the challenges that can emerge and what — particularly as foundation executives — can be done to navigate them.

Important themes emerged:

  • A trusting and productive partnership between the board chair and the CEO is the starting point for a good board-staff partnership, and that requires a culture of honesty, candor, and “no surprises.”
  • Established governance processes are a helpful way to ensure that board practices are well thought out and guided by best practices, but culture often trumps process and boards and executives should be cautious about establishing “bad” processes as a way to address an isolated or specific issue.
  • The board chair’s role is essential in helping to guide and facilitate the board’s work — and the relationship with the CEO. This includes addressing challenging issues or behaviors within the board itself, which cannot effectively be addressed by the CEO themselves.

Beyond the threads of discussion that emerged from the experiences of the individuals in the room, we also tapped into some of the insights gleaned from BoardSource’s 2018 report, Foundation Board Leadership: A Closer Look at Foundation Board Responses to Leading with Intent 2017. The findings from this study were illuminating, but the truth is, when it comes to a body of evidence on foundation board leadership and the relationship between boards and executives, there’s still much that we don’t know.

For example, we don’t know:

  • Are the dynamics that were visible in our relatively small sample of foundation responses to Leading with Intent 2017 representative of the broader foundation community?
  • Are there aspects of board leadership that matter more or less based on the type of foundation — private, community, family, or other?
  • Is there evidence of positive progress in foundation board leadership as it relates to adopting essential practices such as CEO evaluation, board self-assessment, and diversifying board composition?

We don’t know the answers to these questions, and it’s with that in mind that I invite foundation CEOs and board chairs to participate in BoardSource’s next study. The survey is live at leadingwithintent.org and — as is the case with all quantitative research — its value is directly correlated with the extent to which it includes a broad sample of survey respondents. Our last study included responses from 111 foundations. While interesting and illuminating as it relates to the board practices of those 111 foundations, it’s simply not a large enough sample to provide the kind of insights that the field really needs.

That’s where you can make a difference. Please take time to share information about your board’s leadership, and then share with your colleagues at other foundations (and nonprofits) asking them to do the same.

Foundation boards are making high-stakes decisions about where and how to invest resources to address some of our most pressing social issues. Who they are and how they operate matters — in very real ways. But windows into what’s really happening within the foundation boardroom are limited. That’s why research on foundation board leadership is so important. And why your foundation’s participation is so appreciated.

Learn more or complete the survey at leadingwithintent.org.

Anne Wallestad is CEO of BoardSource. Follow her on Twitter at @AnneWallestad.

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