For almost two years, I have been intrigued by a commonality I’ve observed in family foundations having a variety of issues. Perhaps your foundation has experienced one of these as well:

  • Tension or even conflict in the board room on an all too frequent basis;
  • A board struggling to understand its role and finding greater ease in focusing on things once thought to be staff responsibilities;
  • A board member who regularly goes “off track” and derails the agenda yet no one wants to address the situation;
  • An opportunity to look at an old problem in a new way;
  • Recognition that planning for the future is needed and getting consensus on a process to do it;
  • Competent meeting management and facilitating strong participation by all board members.

I’ve come to see how many of these circumstances are affected by the ability of the board chair to make a critical difference at the critical time. That ability may be affected by the regard given by other board members and staff to the board chair position.  Is it genuinely a position of respected leadership?  Ability may also be affected by personal skills in conflict management/avoidance, creative problem solving, and intuitive facilitation.

Family foundation practice regarding the board chair position varies widely.  Some give everyone a turn to be chair in an effort to be fair at sharing the opportunity to lead. Others nominate and elect a board chair based on perceived ability to carry out the duties of the board chair job description. Many serve a limited term; many serve for decades. Some board chairs see their job as beginning and ending in the board room – managing the meeting agenda. Others play an active role between meetings, helping to address board issues and plan board activities. Still others take an even more active (meddling?) role, taking on the work of the CEO. Some board chairs have the title “president” indicating there is a designed management/operational role in addition to a governance one.

We need much more knowledge and understanding of effective board chair leadership. The National Center for Family Philanthropy wants to support family foundations as they work toward effective governance. As such, I have been working on an interview project to better understand how boards function with special attention to the role of the board chair. Later in the year, NCFP will publish the results of my exploration. If you are interested in the paper, look to future issues of Family Giving News for an excerpt and information on getting the full paper.

Better still, participate in the study! Send me an email and answer any or all of the following questions:

  • How does your foundation select board chairs?
  • What responsibilities does the board chair have?
  • Can you offer examples of when board leadership made a critical difference?  How about when board leadership could have been more in evidence?
  • Does your foundation have a job description for the board chair role? (Can you share that description with us?)
  • Has board chair selection and responsibility changed over the generations?

Be sure to let me know some basic facts about your foundation (size, generation, staffing, etc.). If I have any follow-up questions, can I contact you? If so, let me know the best way to reach you. I sincerely appreciate all the help I can get!

Enjoy the last of the summer,

Ginny