Lessons for New Family Foundation Board Members from the 2020 Trustee Education Institute

“I feel like a bit of a fish out of water when talking with people who know nothing about foundations.”

“I married into a family with a foundation and I’m looking for help.”

“We didn’t grow up with this wealth. It is difficult to discuss.”

Three attendees shared these thoughts during NCFP’s recent Trustee Education Institute. Their sentiments are common for immigrants to the world of family foundations.* Like many people, they probably came from families where any wealth was tied up in a house and retirement plan. Now they’re helping annually grant a sum greater than the worth of the house and retirement plan combined. Feeling both daunted and excited about the opportunity is normal.

If you are planning to join a family foundation board, or are a new member, speakers at the Institute offered these tips to help you adapt and succeed:

  • Learn to go from personal to professional. While finding peers helps you be confident in your independence, you also need to learn interdependence—the ability to work within the family in healthy ways. Experts stressed the importance of making a purposeful mental and behavioral shift when entering the foundation board room (or virtual meeting room). A family’s interactions and decision making can, and often should, be different at the foundation than at family holidays and reunions. One speaker described it as “choosing to come together as a we rather than a collection of me’s” while another said her family foundation makes decisions based on “a culture of love around the table.”
  • Find and join peers. Successful giving families help members discover and even pursue their own philanthropic identities—the values and interests that drive their giving and volunteering. This often means connecting with like-minded donors outside of the family. IDP Foundation President and CEO Irene Pritzker advised attendees, “Don’t work in a bubble. Be a joiner and learn from others—expand your network.” Other speakers valued their participation in one of the many philanthropy trade associations and networks for donors and impact investors. In these groups, they found others who had similar questions, sometimes questions they were uncomfortable raising with their own families.
  • Ask for the rules of the road. Federal and state laws regulating foundations and other philanthropic tools aren’t intuitive, even to people with years of experience in philanthropy. Make time to learn your responsibilities for managing conflict of interest, personal benefit (also known as self-dealing), and fiduciary responsibility. Beyond the legal aspects, ask questions about your foundation’s current culture, policies, and informal rules of the road, often shaped by founding donors’ intentions and important events in a family’s history.
  • Be willing to step out of your comfort zone. Many speakers told stories of personal growth in their time as foundation board members. Some learned about different forms of privilege and the unintended biases those privileges bring. Some learned how to confront racial inequities. Others tried new grantmaking strategies that put more trust and power in the hands of nonprofits. Each speaker said stepping out of their comfort zone improved the impact of their family’s philanthropy. And as Jean Case noted, bringing in multiple or even conflicting perspectives is a proven technique to achieve higher performance in organizations.
  • Prioritize connections over cash. Institute participants often recounted how their family philanthropy created deeper connections—to other family members, shared values and purposes, important causes, people on the front lines of making a difference, meaningful use of their volunteer time outside of the foundation, and more. Those relationships helped shape their personal values and approaches to philanthropy, and they provided more long-term meaning than any grant decisions won or lost.

Need help with these tips? Don’t hesitate to reach out to the NCFP team at ncfp@ncfp.org and they’ll gladly schedule time for a call or video chat, email you resources, and/or connect you with your peers. If you’re hoping to ensure younger family members will be more prepared than you feel, you may also want to join the Engaging Youth Peer Network.

* Strangers in Paradise (Grubman, 2013) is a classic read for immigrants to family wealth and full of lessons applicable to family philanthropy and family business. New family foundation board members should also check out the Getting Started Content Collection.


The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

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