How do I set priorities as the new CEO of a family foundation?

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the new NCFP CEO Guide, Performance Review: The Complete Guide to Evaluating the Family Foundation CEO, volume 3 of our Family Foundation CEO Leadership Series.

Setting priorities can be challenging for a new CEO, what with the myriad responsibilities of the job. When Kathleen Odne, the executive director of the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, became the foundation’s first staff person, she came to think of her workload as in three buckets. This still helps her today as she periodically assesses whether she is spending more of her time in one or two buckets and not enough in the third. “These are all important things and you need to pay attention to all three of them every day.”

One bucket is internal. “That’s administration of the office, handling staff, investment oversight, and developing the grantmaking process. It’s not just nuts and bolts things, but also establishing a tone. We are always respectful in how we relate to our nonprofit partners and the community in general.”

The external bucket is how she developed and maintains connections to the community and the philanthropy field. “It’s really important to get out there. Join networks like NCFP, the Council on Foundations, your regional association of grantmakers, affinity groups in your funding areas. I encouraged the whole board to attend the COF Family Foundation Conference that first year and we learned how much we had to learn.” She also spent time getting to know more of the nonprofits in Walnut Creek, California, and the surrounding county where all the foundation’s grantmaking is focused. “In this way, you build your reputation as a community asset and start to build the stature of the foundation. I didn’t understand in the beginning what a powerful role we can play in the community in terms of connecting people.”

The third bucket is the family. “It’s very different from the internal bucket. It’s a lot of soft skills, and doing it well requires vigilance, sensitivity, and good communication. I always feel nervous if I’m out of touch with my board members for very long.” She emails them a fairly short newsy memo every Friday. In addition to updates on foundation business, “I try to whet their appetite for articles I think are provocative or something going on locally that they should know.

“When I first started, I wasn’t as focused on building a strong relationship with the board,” Odne said. She mostly related to Margaret Lesher who hired her shortly after Dean’s death. After Margaret died, Odne had to focus on developing closer relationships with the couple’s children. In hindsight, she wishes she’d done more with the grandchildren earlier, too. “When I started, the grandchildren were about ages 8 to 22. I was consumed with the grantmaking; we didn’t explore a next generation board. That concept has really only bloomed in the last decade. We now have more third than second generation board members and I’ve had to get them up to speed as they began their board service.”

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Performance Review: The Complete Guide to Evaluating the Family Foundation CEO

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