Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Leading Through Change: Advice from and for Seasoned CEOs, a new guide for family foundation CEOs being released in April as part of NCFP’s ongoing CEO Initiative. The guide is avaialble for purchase by calling NCFP’s offices at 202.293.3424.
The longer CEOs stay in the job, the more they see strategic opportunities for the foundation. There may be strong reasons for funding some new areas with greater potential impact, entering into collaborations, or including advocacy grants in the mix, for example. But sometimes the challenge is convincing the board.
“You have to stay attuned to bringing the family along,” cautions Alice Buhl, NCFP Senior Fellow. You may want to go faster, but the family isn’t ready to go there yet. Longtime CEOs must be flexible and alert to the family’s needs.” she notes that “boards haven’t had the connection or exposure the CEO has had,” so sometimes it takes a while to help them reach a new strategic level.
“My view is that you should always be a little ahead of your board,” says David Nee, long-time executive director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, who retired after 21 years with the foundation in 2014. “Otherwise you’re not going anywhere. The risk is getting too far ahead.”
CEOs inevitably have more knowledge about the grantmaking programs of the foundation than the family—after all, it’s their job. “It’s a delicate balance in the board room,” says one CEO. “Don’t act like a know-it-all. And don’t push your own recommendations in a way that they think you are orchestrating everything.”
Some families embrace change and risk-taking, others do not. Sometimes when a family hires a CEO, they don’t really know what they want. But board members are typically very smart and accomplished individuals in their own right, and they want to be involved in high level conversations to develop strategies and approaches that will meet the mission of the foundation.
On the other hand, “families often think they want more change than they really do,” says Buhl. “They may hire a strong leader, a strategic thinker, and when they have that, they don’t necessarily want it.” Some CEOs learn to deal with this. Where she sees differences in the outcome depends on “whether the CEO has deep respect for the family or they don’t. Some CEOs think ‘these people aren’t coming along. I’m trying to teach them and they don’t get it.’ A CEO who doesn’t respect the family should not stay in the job.”
Keeping lines of communication open
Seasoned CEOs say that it takes a long time, sometimes years, to build the trust of the family. That’s one important advantage veteran CEOs have over newbies. But veterans caution that foundation boards and CEOs can get too comfortable in their relationship. One CEO says, “I could get away with not reporting for six months, but that is not a good thing. I think the CEO and the board chair should have regular meetings to talk things through, and not just about day to day matters.”
David Nee agrees. He had a close working relationship with his longtime board chair, Bill Graustein. “There is a deep level of trust and open exchange. Bill is a research scientist by training, and he’s hungry for information. He wants to know everything. But he also says that whatever else is going on, there is always time to discuss our relationship.” They had breakfast once a week, often “with one other board member who provided a reality check. I previewed upcoming issues and we discussed what things should be lifted up to the board and what to let ride.”
Views from the Field : The Friday Fish-Wrap Kathleen Odne, executive director of the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, started a short email newsletter called the Friday Fish-Wrap in 2002. The name originated with the founder, Dean Lesher, who had owned a chain of newspapers and was fond of saying “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-wrap.” All week, Odne sticks items in a folder, and on Friday sends the board a short, informal compilation of news about grantees, links to useful articles, information about agenda items for upcoming board meetings, and occasionally, news about family members. “It takes very little time, and is an easy way to keep the board informed about the foundation’s work,” Odne says.
Regular communication with the board chair or other board members doesn’t negate the need for formal performance evaluations of the CEO. Yet, in NCFP’s CEO study, few veterans reported that their boards conduct them. Especially when the CEO has a close working relationship with the family—or is a family member—it’s more typical that the board chair just takes the CEO to lunch once a year, says he or she is doing a great job and gives a raise. Still, it’s good practice to have some kind of evaluation, and it probably won’t happen unless you initiate it.
“If you haven’t been doing it, you have to ease them into something,” Buhl says. It doesn’t have be a formal one using an evaluation instrument. “It could be just a chance you have every year to talk to the board about your goals and what you want to achieve. This sets priorities that are clear to the board, and makes you accountable, and allows the board to say no if they disagree. Then, report at the end of the year on what you have accomplished.”
Keeping the Board Engaged and Continuously Learning
It’s often said that for board members, foundation work is their avocation, not their vocation. The challenge for CEOs is to keep the board engaged. “When my work is someone else’s play, that’s the hardest relationship to maintain,” one CEO says. “They think it’s a neat thing (being on the foundation board), but it’s not their job. It’s my job to get up and think about the foundation every day.”
Alice Buhl says an important part of a CEO’s job is to “continually, intentionally, involve the family. Even if you aren’t always successful, you have to keep trying.”
“I think of my position as a teaching role,” says another CEO. “A grant may be successful, or it may be a failure, but even failures provide valuable lessons. CEOs need the skills—professional, emotional, moral—to help those who have large influence and power wield them for good.”
One way to promote learning is to expose the family to experts and current thinking. Some CEOs also recommend having outside board members with subject matter expertise in the fields the foundation funds.
Richard Woo, executive director of The Russell Family Foundation, believes in the value of board members attending philanthropy conferences and community meetings. “They see how other people do things and are then more likely to try new approaches,” Woo explains. He’s always had some board members who were willing to do that, but “one of the unique aspects of a family foundation is that the work is influenced by the life cycle of the family. When many of my board members were in their late 30s and 40s, they were busy raising children, and it was harder to get their attention. Now, as empty nesters, they have more time and some of their children have joined the board, thereby starting a new cycle.”
On her 10th anniversary, Pamela David, executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, wrote a reflective piece on the state of the foundation. “I didn’t mean it to start a bunch of new work for me, but it did,” she laughs. One of the results was that she and her board took a serious look at how to move to a more satisfying level of strategic conversation for both board and staff. She then brought in a consultant to help, who spent time individually and collectively with board and staff. While the effort is still in its early stages, it’s already led to some significant changes.
“Rather than giving the board lengthy white papers, we’re giving them fact sheets and then posing some big questions. While the board still wants staff to make recommendations, we’ve set the table for satisfying and stimulating discussions that our consultant would likely label as generative.”
Views from the Field: Board Engagement And Learning
Gayle Williams, retired executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, incorporated a learning component in the board’s meeting agendas. “My job was to create a safe space for learning, where it’s OK to say ‘we don’t know.’ I had help from a committee of the board that worked with me to select the learning projects and serve as a sounding board on structure.
“At every board meeting I had a group of grantees on a particular topic who could be content specialists. I tried hard not to have anybody whose grant was up for renewal.” Sometimes the nonfamily members on the board were content experts, too.
The most time-consuming to plan were the board’s annual trips to a community where the foundation had a cluster of grantees. “The board could see what the nonprofits were doing and engage in conversations with them.” Williams not only had to prepare the board with background material on the organizations and on the field they worked in, but also had to prepare the grantees. “Board members are not who they normally talk to,” she explains, “and just because the foundation funded them didn’t mean the board knew a lot about their work.”
She also debriefed the board afterward, asking “what they had learned and how that informed those grants or affected the foundation’s overall strategy.” She says she was blessed with “a family that is really intelligent, that likes exploring, and is not risk averse.” Part of her role in educating the board also extended to individual members. “We had constant turnover in the nonfamily board members,” she notes. “It takes a couple of years to figure out board culture. I was sometimes the connector and sometimes the interpreter.”
Representing the family in the community
Consultant Alice Buhl says longtime CEOs who are the face of the foundation in their community must be cautious not to forget their servant-leadership role. “It’s really tempting when you have a lot of control, to start responding [to potential grantees] as if you can make the decisions yourself. Instead, say ‘great idea, but I’m working with a board’ and that you are representing them. Terminology is important, she adds. “Instead of using the board as a gatekeeper or an excuse, talk about them as an involved partner. Don’t say ‘I’ll have to get my board’s permission.’ When you make a speech, keep dropping in that you are accountable to a board. Acknowledge the board in a positive way. You can stress the partnership by saying ‘this is the foundation’s strategy,’ not ‘this is my strategy’ or ‘the board’s strategy’.”
Collaborations are trickier. “When you operate in a collaborative, you have to have the power to make decisions, and it can be hard for families to let go of that,” Buhl says. It’s important to have this discussion in advance. “The CEO should come to the board with boundaries of what she or he needs to be able to do, and what has to come back to the board. The board can then set limits on the power the CEO has in a given group.”
A family foundation CEO may be a leader in a community as well as the foundation’s spokesperson. However, Pamela David’s experience working for both elected officials and now a family foundation has taught her to use that “voice” carefully. She notes that while a lot of her values are aligned with the family’s values, she recognizes that “everything I say reflects on the family. I’m always conscious of that. At the same time, the board has been very supportive of my own service on nonprofit boards, and my engagement on key community issues.”