Foundation CEOs on Foundation Boards: Few and Far Between

Good foundation governance is a subject of much discussion and debate. Recently, one of our board members, Crystal Hayling, suggested to us that foundation boards would function better if more of their members were CEOs of other foundations.

Her argument made sense to us. She noted that running a foundation is uniquely challenging and having someone in the boardroom who lives those challenges everyday would be helpful. Just as corporate boards frequently include corporate CEOs, foundation boards would be well served to include foundation CEOs.

But, she suggested, that practice is extremely rare.

Just how rare, we wondered?

Using Foundation Center’s listing of foundations by asset size, we examined the Web sites of the 25 largest private, grantmaking foundations with board member information readily available. Because many foundation only provide limited information about their board members on their websites (such as name with no professional information), we had to review 37 foundations in total to find the final 25.

Ultimately, we examined the biographical information of the 295 board members that made up these 25 foundations. Judging by what we saw, Crystal was right about how few and far between foundation CEOs are on foundation boards. Of the 295 board members we looked at, just two are current foundation CEOs and another seven are former foundation CEOs.

There is a larger discussion to be had about who is on foundation boards – the diversity of experiences and backgrounds, or lack thereof. More on that in the future.

But, for now, we’d just observe that it is very strange to think that foundation boards and their governance committees wouldn’t place a higher priority on the knowledge gained from running a foundation.

Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). You can find him on Twitter @PhilCEP. Jennifer Glickman is a Research Analyst at CEP.