For many giving families, the effectiveness of their foundation directly correlates with the skills and traits of the foundation’s board chair.
Successful family foundation board chairs are able to both drive action and manage egos — and are often the difference between a foundation deftly navigating challenging situations and being tripped up by them.
It’s a role that needs careful consideration. Those serving in this capacity need the leadership skills needed to run smooth, productive board meetings.
But it also requires more than just an ability to run a meeting. It requires a nuanced set of interpersonal skills that are not always easy to find.
In some family foundations, the chair job is an honorific where everyone gets a turn. Through the second generation, this may be an equitable and effective strategy. But experience shows that it rarely is the sole or wise criterion thereafter.
There are qualities and qualifications that make someone particularly suited to board leadership.
When a difficult situation arises, whether it is a problematic board member or a community controversy with a grant or grantee, a well-qualified chair can mean the difference between managing the situation and having it escalate due to avoidance or mismanagement.
“Being the Chair of a family foundation is definitely hard work, but it's also really rewarding. It's a great opportunity to think strategically, to frame conversations, to interact in different ways, and invite new people to get involved.” - Kelly Sweeney McShane, Board Chair, The William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation
So how does your family ensure that it is choosing the right people to serve as board chairs — and that it is setting them up for success when they assume this important role?
Many of the most thoughtful giving families create a formalized process for choosing a chair. They create a selection process to be used by the Nominating Committee, and invite prospective candidates to apply.
But in a small family, there may only be one or two obvious choices.
As a result, family foundation boards often need to do more than simply screen the right candidates. They also need to create a formal structure for the position that spells out what the foundation — and the chair — should aspire to.
Creating a Job Description
To do that, many foundations take the extra step of creating job descriptions that clearly spell out the responsibilities and traits needed to succeed in the role.
How you structure that job description will likely depend on the culture of your organization. But there are a number of common responsibilities that you will likely choose to spell out.
The chair is the foundation’s leader and spokesperson. The chair develops the agenda for the board meetings, works with the staff (if any) and executive committee (if there is one), and leads the board meetings.
Other chair responsibilities include:
• Holding individual board members accountable for their roles and tasks;
• Ensuring the board has the information necessary to carry out their tasks;
• Ensuring that information is provided in a clear and useful form and that all board members are treated equally in the information they are given; and
• Acting as the spokesperson for the board in communicating with the staff of the foundation (if any), and with key constituencies.
One additional and vitally important skill: the ability to remain neutral and not take things personally. Unlike corporate or nonprofit boards, the foundation’s is typically made up primarily of family members, and that comes with all the dynamics related to personality, wealth, geography, communication, lifestyles, ideology, and religion.
Serving as Staff
In some small foundations, the chair also acts as staff.
If not carefully managed, this can create difficult family dynamics where the board feels the chair has too much power or the chair resents that he or she has to do too much of the work.
If the staff job is a paid position, this can get even more stressful. That’s why family members who serve as chair should think carefully before taking on a staffing role.
Finally, no matter how you structure the board chair position, it’s important to attempt to set expectations for the role — and to provide the chair with the training and resources he or she needs to succeed.
Doing so will help ensure the lasting success of your foundation — and might just help you navigate the differences in ideology and opinions that exist in every family.
Note: This posting is adapted from the soon-to-be-released Splendid Legacy 2: Creating and Re-Creating Your Family Foundation. This new resource includes practical advice to help families build and sustain their foundations and is designed to serve as a trusted guide for giving families. for more information about how you can add Splendid Legacy 2 to your family’s bookshelf.