Who Runs the Big Foundations? A Look at the Leadership of the Largest 100 Foundations

With recent CEO turnover at large foundations, there’s been much talk about an apparent trend of foundation boards appointing CEOs with some background in philanthropy. We’ve seen several high-profile internal promotions in the last couple of years to the top job, such as at Ford, Kellogg, and MacArthur. We’ve also seen appointments of those with experience leading other foundations, such as at Barr and The Heinz Endowments.

Three years ago, we looked at the backgrounds of CEOs at the 100 largest foundations in the U.S., as listed by Foundation Center, and noted that the majority — 60 of the 100 CEOs —came to their roles from outside philanthropy. Given some of the transitions we’ve seen, we were curious to see what’s changed at the largest foundations.

Last month, we took a fresh look at the 100 largest foundations by asset size and, despite some modest shifts, the picture looks similar in 2015 to how it did in 2012.

Here’s what we found:

  2015 2012
CEOs promoted internally 25 21
CEOs from another foundation 9 7
CEOs from the nonprofit sector 10 14
CEOs previously in academia 14 14
CEOs previously in business 17 17
CEOs from another field outside philanthropy 20 15
CEOs categorized as “other” 1 4
Could not be categorized 4 8


We should emphasize that we looked at the most recent prior position of foundation CEOs. Someone who came to a foundation CEO job from a business role, but who had experience earlier in their career in the nonprofit sector, would still be categorized as “previously in business.”

In 2012, we concluded that:

  • “Internal promotion to the CEO job at foundations is not that common … but it does happen.”
    • In 2012, 21 of the CEOs of the largest 100 foundations were internally promoted. Today, that number is 25 — a slight uptick. Notwithstanding the high-profile internal promotions at some of the very largest of the large foundations, when we zoom out to look at the greater picture of the largest 100, it’s still just a quarter of chief executives who were promoted from within.
  • “Foundation boards don’t much value experience at other foundations.”
    • Just seven foundation CEOs came to their role from another foundation in 2012. Now, that number stands at nine. While there have been some high-profile hires of those with foundation experience, others who fit that profile have retired.
  • Experience as a grantee, if you exclude colleges and universities …. isn’t much valued by foundation boards when they’re searching for a CEO.”
    • In 2012 we identified just 14 foundation CEOs with immediate previous experience at an operating nonprofit that wasn’t a college or university. Today, that number is even lower — just 10.


Meanwhile, the number of CEOs whose previous gig was in higher education and business have remained the same as in 2012: 14 and 17, respectively.

What can we conclude from this data on the backgrounds of the CEOs of the largest 100 foundations? For one, there does seem to be at least some indication that boards are prizing foundation experience more highly than before.

But we can also see that experience on the other side of the table from foundations, as a grantee, still seems to not be too high on boards’ list of desired traits in candidates. That’s surprising — a little disappointing even — given the power dynamics between the funders and the funded, as well as the degree to which foundations depend on grantees in their work toward shared goals.

Of course, some CEOs, like Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, have that experience — even if it is further back in their career and not their most recent post. But, looking at this current picture of leadership has left us wondering: why aren’t more foundation boards looking to CEOs of operating nonprofits, perhaps top-performing grantees? After all, there’s something to be said for the on-the-ground experience of being a grantee.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. You can find him on Twitter at @PhilCEPJen Cole is a research analyst at CEP.

foundation governance, foundation staff/program officers, leadership
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