Looking Within for the Next Foundation CEO

Does the appointment of La June Montgomery Tabron as president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, falling on the heels of the Ford Foundation’s appointment of Darren Walker as its new CEO, signal a trend of foundation boards being more willing to look internally when appointing someone to the top job?

I don’t know. But I think it’s a hopeful development to see two senior executives walking down the hall into the corner offices of two of the largest foundations in the country. As I wrote on this blog over a year ago, an examination of where the CEOs of the country’s largest 100 foundations came from revealed just 21 who were promoted within.

While it will often be the case that the right call is to go external, 21 out of 100 seemed like a low number to me. I wasn’t arguing that boards should always look within. But I think it’s a positive development to see two of the largest foundations tap an internal candidate.

Fact is, experience with the unique challenges of philanthropy can be a plus. Yes, running a foundation can seem to those of us not doing it like a dream job. How hard can it possibly be? In fact, it’s uniquely challenging to do it well. Performance measures are elusive and it’s easy to live in a bubble, surrounded by people who tell you what they think you want to hear. The most effective foundation presidents understand the unique challenges and risks of the role and act accordingly.

Knowing something about those unique challenges and risks can be helpful, I believe.

At the very least, I hope these recent high-profile appointments of CEOs from within will prompt more boards to talk with their current CEOs about the talent inside their institutions and what is being done to develop it – so that, when they have a transition, looking internally feels like a viable option.


Phil Buchanan is President of CEP and a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @philCEP.

foundation governance, foundation staff/program officers, foundation strategy, leadership
Previous Post
Better than a Bad Lunch… An Honest Critique
Next Post
Data Point: Nonprofits Think Foundations Can Do More to Help with Their Challenges

Related Blog Posts