What Do We Call Our Non-Family Board Members?

Currently, we use the term “non-family” board member for board members who are not members of our founding family, but we would like to find another term for these individuals. What do you suggest?

We agree that the default term non-family is not necessarily the most inspiring way to describe the valuable role that these individuals play (although neither is it typically intended in a disparaging way). There is no legal implication for what you call your board members who are not members of the family, so choose the term that feels best to you… and to them!

Here are a few examples of other terms used by family foundations around the country:

  • Community trustee or community board members: Many family foundations – including the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and The Meadows Foundation –  prefer these terms, each of which reflect the idea that these individuals are leaders from the community the foundation serves
  • Independent trustee: Some families use this term to highlight the fact that the individual is a neutral but trusted outside advisor.
  • Diverse board members: Some families, such as the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, have focused on the essential importance of diversity on their board for facing the issues the foundation seeks to address: “Today, most of our debates are over strategies for preserving and improving the environment, about what a just society might look like, and about how the market economy can be reconciled with the natural world and with democracy. We can’t imagine debating these issues within a narrow slice of society, because the answers will affect and must involve us all.”
  • At large: The Nord Family Foundation in Ohio uses the phrase “at large” board members to describe trustees who are not members of the family, and notes that the foundation “welcomes individuals whose backgrounds and experiences so closely compliment the Foundation’s mission.”
  • General trustees: The David and Lucile Packard Foundation refers to its non-family board members as general trustees and describe the terms for these board members in their bylaws: “General Trustees are nominated by the Board of Trustees and are elected by a majority of the Trustees then holding office. The term of each General Trustee is three years. A General Trustee may serve up to three consecutive three-year terms in office, unless a special exception is made.”

For much more on the topic of non-family board members, see NCFP’s Passages Issue Brief, A Place at the Table: Non-family Membership on the Family Foundation Board. For more on the issue of how to ensure long-term control of the foundation, see our “Keeping Control” blog post on this topic. What term(s) do you use to describe your board members who are not also family members? Let us know!

Advice from colleagues

And what advice do your colleagues have about appointing board members drawn from the larger community? Here are a few pieces of advice from family trustees and foundation CEOs excerpted from our “A Place at the Table” Issue Brief:

“It is important to find people who appreciate and support your concept of a family foundation. Our experience with the first two non-family board members far exceeded all expectations. We avoided a two-tier structure and they had all of the responsibilities and privileges of family members. In short, they have made us better in many ways, and we are all grateful for their participation on the Surdna board.”

—Elizabeth Andrus, Trustee, The Surdna Foundation

“There needs to be a clear understanding of the foundation’s intentions. Is the goal only to add another voice? Is there hope that outsiders will quell family dissension? Is there a programmatic knowledge goal —and if so will the new member intimidate the others (which might lead to the idea of hiring a consultant instead of getting a board member)? The ED should talk individually with each board member to understand any concerns that he/she needs to be alert to as the foundation moves forward. Many of these concerns are more apt to be emotional than rational.”

—Skip Moore, former President, The Weaver Foundation

“Make sure that all family board members and family branches feel they have been given the opportunity to participate in the nomination/selection process.”

—Stephen Foster, President/CEO, The Overbrook Foundation

“Do it.”

—Steve Toben, Executive Director, Flora Family Foundation