For Family Foundations, Family Ties and Good Governance Work Together

Phillip Henderson

As the Surdna Foundation marks its centennial year, we’re reflecting on the many lessons we’ve learned, how those lessons have guided our foundation’s journey to a social justice-focused mission, and how those lessons can inform our work — and that of our fellow funders — in the future.

One hundred years ago, John E. Andrus founded Surdna to be of service to those most in need. Over the last century, five successive generations of Andrus family members have governed the foundation, ensuring it continues to be guided by the values and principles of its founder.

The extensive engagement of Andrus family members has enabled Surdna to transform those values and principles into established governance practices that have contributed significantly to Surdna’s sustainability and to our capacity to support the work of our grantee partners on the frontlines of social change.

Among those good governance practices is Surdna’s formal process for selecting, orienting, and training board members. As our Board Chair Peter Benedict II has explained, Surdna’s “board is disciplined in how it approaches membership,” thanks in part to the fact that “one of the things that the family has focused on is having a family involvement or a family participation program.” Surdna has established both formal and informal vehicles to engage family members with the work of the foundation through our sister foundation, the Andrus Family Fund, which the Surdna Foundation oversees and which provides hands-on board service and grantmaking experience for teenagers and young professionals.

Inspired by the Andrus family’s governance practices, we approached the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to identify common practices of good governance that have sustained and nurtured Surdna and other long-standing family foundations that approach their social change work from the perspective of justice, equity, and inclusion. CEP spoke with CEOs and board chairs from six family foundations, in addition to Surdna: the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, the McKnight Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. These conversations are detailed in the recently released CEP publication, Family Ties:  Multigenerational Family Foundation Board Engagement.

The publication spotlights several common practices and structures that all seven multigenerational family foundations have embraced to maintain productive family involvement; select, orient, and engage family members across generations; and keep the board and foundation focused on impact. Common practices identified include:

  • Creating formal governance structures that ensure continued family engagement and influence over time, including examples of bylaw provisions that maintain family control while also allowing boards to function as a group of equals;
  • Planning for specific processes to select new family board members as the number of family members grows across generations, including examples of sister foundations or junior trustee structures that help new family members join with a full understanding of the responsibilities and expectations of effective board members;
  • Recognizing the importance of non-family members on the board and having trusted professional staff that bring additional expertise, diversity, leadership, and connections to issues and communities;
  • Spending significant time and effort on practices like site visits and grantee presentations that connect board members to the experiences of grantees, beneficiaries, and communities; and
  • Valuing the legacy of benefactors and earlier family generations, which helps drive long-term commitment to important work — including work on advocacy and policy, with marginalized communities, or focus on social justice — that from the outside might seem likely to polarize board members or be controversial.

These practices have been particularly important to Surdna’s success — and our commitment to the Andrus family legacy is among the most important. Today our board uses a “statement of culture” that outlines board values which can be traced to many founding values of John E. Andrus. We know that Andrus cared deeply for vulnerable people, evidenced by the fact that one of the first acts of the Surdna Foundation was to establish an orphanage. That commitment to serving vulnerable people has been a guiding principle throughout the foundation’s transition to a social-justice mission.

Encouraged by supportive leadership and a board that embraces learning and welcomes innovation and value-based strategies to meet the challenges of the day, the important question we are constantly asking ourselves is, “How do we interpret the values that have been part of this institution over the last century, today?” Never was that question more pertinent than during the redevelopment of Surdna’s mission, in 2008, to focus on social justice. Social justice has been a part of the foundation’s DNA from conception, and the board worked to deliberately bring that part of Surdna’s DNA into our core focus.

Of equal importance is the family’s decision to include non-family members on our board. These members have enriched the work of the foundation by adding diversity, bringing new perspectives, and sharing their expertise.

And finally, the existence of and respect for formal governance structures is critical. These formal structures ensure continued family engagement and influence over time, create standardized practices to select, engage, and train new family board members, and allow board members to function as a group of equals.

We’re immensely grateful for the work of CEP in putting this report together, and for the foundations who participated in sharing their stories. To read more about family engagement and good governance among family foundations, download the publication here.

Phillip Henderson is president of the Surdna Foundation, based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @philliphenderso.

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