Where Did All the Women Go? Leadership at the Big Foundations

At the Council on Foundations (COF) conference in Los Angeles last week, I received a number of comments about my blog post on the career trajectory of those who become CEOs at the 100 largest foundations. Many were struck by the tendency of foundation boards to go outside the foundation world to find leaders.

Several people asked me about the gender breakdown of the leaders of the largest 100. The question seemed to come from a perception that there’s still a glass ceiling at the big foundations, and a worry that the net was being cast in such a way that strong women candidates were being missed.

So we decided to take a look. (Note: I was also asked about racial diversity, but that’s a tougher one for us to investigate just based on public data because it’s not always self-evident on websites and in bios.)

At first glance, the data looks a little sobering, but not awful. My CEP colleague An-Li Herring and I count 33 women among the CEOs of 94 of the largest 100 foundations for which we could identify the CEO – or 35 percent.

But, when we look closer, the picture gets starker. The bigger the foundations, the less likely we are to find women running them.

  • Among the 48 of the top 50 foundations by asset size where we could identify the CEO, we see just 12 women CEOs – or 25 percent.
  • Among the 24 of the top 25 where we could identify the CEO, only four of the CEOs are women – or 16 percent.

Why the decline in the proportion of women leaders as the foundations get larger?

I don’t have the answer, of course. It’s puzzling, especially given that the overwhelming majority of foundation staff are women, according to COF.

COF’s data also shows, as our look at the largest 100 did, that the proportion of women CEOs declines as the foundations get larger. (The same trend of fewer women CEOs at larger organizations exists at operating nonprofits, according to a Guidestar survey. That survey found that just 16 percent of nonprofit organizations with operating budgets of $50 million or more have female CEOs.)

How can boards of the largest foundations change this dynamic? Two ideas:

First, do a better job of cultivating leaders and internal successors within foundations. There are many benefits of doing so. As I wrote in my last post:

I’d … argue that foundation board members that have reason – and data – to believe their foundation is operating effectively should make the cultivation of potential internal successors a high priority. If your foundation has clear goals, coherent strategies, is implementing those strategies well (and operating smoothly), and possesses data that suggests its strategies are working, then boards should look carefully internally.

Second, look more at candidates currently running other, smaller foundations. Today very few CEOs come from other foundations – we identified just seven at the largest 100 who came from a role at another foundation. Yet this data (as well as COF’s data) suggests that there are a lot of women leaders at foundations once you get past the top 50.

If boards take these steps, I would hope this picture would look quite different a decade from now.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP.


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