Governance Essentials

About this collection: Trusteeship is — first and foremost — a very personal commitment to a public trust. This Content Collection provides both introductory resources as well as more detailed looks at many of the most important aspects of foundation governance.

What are the roles and tasks of family foundation board members? How do you make decisions about board structure and responsibilities? Trusteeship is—first and foremost—a very personal commitment to a public trust. This Content Collection provides both introductory resources as well as more detailed looks at many of the most important aspects of foundation governance. These resources will provide you with the opportunity to explore the roles and responsibilities of trusteeship: what does it mean to you and others, including your fellow trustees, and—unknown to you now—those who may one day take a role as a trustee of your foundation.

NOTE: If you haven’t already done so, start your exploration of governance by reviewing Governance: Building a Framework for Your Decision Making from NCFP’s Family Giving Lifecycle primer series.

Know of other good resources to include here? Please suggest a resource.

Featured Resources

Graphic of the Family Governance Pyramid

The Family Governance Pyramid: Enhancing and Guiding Your Family Philanthropy

Passages Issue Briefs
The Family Governance Pyramid provides a model and framework for philanthropic families that is even more relevant and necessary today than when it was first introduced nearly two decades ago. This article provides some perspective on why, and how, families can apply this model to their family and philanthropy, for…

Good Governance: Basic Rules For Governing A Family Foundation

Book Chapter
Once the donor has determined the most appropriate giving mechanism, such as a private foundation, the board of trustees begins to play a role in governance. Usually with the guidance of the donor, the board sets policy for managing foundation affairs, investing the endowment's portfolio, and making grants.

10 Mistakes New Foundation Boards Make, and How to Avoid Them

Being a board member is a big responsibility, and many of the early choices made by a new board can determine whether the new foundation will move forward smoothly and effectively or become mired in a culture or in policies that stifle effectiveness.

Ethics and Values

November 10, 2011

Ethics in Family Philanthropy: Right Vs. Right Decision-Making

Ethical issues affect every facet of a family’s philanthropy from its structure and mission to its investment, grantmaking strategies, and perhaps most importantly, governance structure. The role of ethics and values is so integral to how families define and carryout their missions, and the expectations for ethical behavior among philanthropists…

Paul Ylvisaker: Ethics and Philanthropy

Book Chapter
This chapter is excerpted from “Philanthropy: The High Estate,” part IV of Conscience & Community: The Legacy of Paul Ylvisaker, which was edited by NCFP Founder and President Virginia Esposito and published by Peter Lang Publishing in 1999. Questions addressed in this chapter include: Is there an ethical requirement to…

Investments and Fiduciary Responsibilities

Managing Risk: Board Oversight of Foundation Investments

Passages Issue Briefs
In the post-Madoff era, the foundation and nonprofit sector continues to struggle with how to invest philanthropic assets most appropriately, and how to ensure that boards and staff are managing investments prudently. This new edition of Passages, authored by two leading experts on the roles and responsibilities of foundation boards,…

Checklist of Fiduciary Responsibilities

This checklist of board fiduciary responsibilities from 'Investment Issues for Family Funds' includes questions on the areas of investment knowledge and oversight; reporting requirements; and planning for the future.

10 common errors to avoid in completing a private foundation’s form 990-PF

This checklist, intended for all audiences, highlights the most common errors that foundations make when filling out the Form 990 that could cast legitimate activity in a bad light, e.g., not filling out the entire form, not attaching appropriate schedules, or documenting administrative expenses incorrectly.

Navigating Family Dynamics

Avoiding Avoidance: Addressing and Managing Conflict in Family Philanthropy

Passages Issue Briefs
Conflict is normal in any family or organization. In this issue of Passages, you’ll learn about the most common conflicts in family philanthropy, the creative “tactics” some boards use to perpetuate the avoidance, and how you can use simple tools to address conflict in a healthy, productive way.
January 12, 2012

Finding Common Ground, Valuing Different Views

Families and foundation boards across the country wrestle with diverging values, various religions and different political persuasions.  While always a concern, divergent opinions come into sharper focus as the nation heads into the 2012 election year. In this candid, behind the scenes look at two family foundations, we explore strategies…

Managing Conflict and Family Dynamics In Your Family’s Philanthropy

Passages Issue Briefs
Philanthropic families face challenges in managing their conflicts from a family dynamics perspective as well as from a philanthropic perspective. This Passages Issue Brief offers advice and guidance from experts on how to manage these conflicts in family philanthropy and describes how conflicts typically surface in families.

Special Topics and Legal Issues

Conflicts of Interest and Avoiding Self-dealing for Family Foundation Boards

Passages Issue Briefs
This Issue Brief includes a detailed history and descriptions of the self-dealing rules, with a particular focus on self-dealing as it relates to managing a foundation’s investments. The paper also features a collection of short vignettes on common questions and a one-page referral checklist for board members and staff.

Board Compensation: Reasonable and Necessary?

Passages Issue Briefs
Deciding whether to compensate or reimburse family foundation board members can be a difficult and complex decision. This Passages Issue Brief provides guidance on the legal regulations regarding compensation, suggestions for how to initiate a conversation among your board members about whether or not compensation is appropriate, and suggestions for…

Measuring What Counts: Meaningful Evaluation for Family Foundations

Passages Issue Briefs
Family foundations are in business to make a difference. As one family foundation leader put it, creating a family foundation is a “powerful statement about wanting to achieve impact.” Yet family foundations often get painted unfairly as not having impact, perhaps because they aren’t always very good at understanding or…

Discretionary Grants: Engaging Family… or Pandora’s Box?

Passages Issue Briefs
If you asked at a gathering of family foundation folks whether using discretionary grants is a good idea, you’d never reach consensus. Many family foundations don’t use them. Those that do have widely varied policies governing how much money is available, who is eligible to make the grants, and whether…

Additional Resources: Videos, Slideshows, and Webinars

board room, board meeting
April 8, 2021

Effective Governance: Principles, Policies, and Practices

Preview the conversation with "The Purpose and Power of Family Governance" by Patricia Angus. Family philanthropy is rooted in the act of collective decision making—one that is often codified in a formal governance structure. But what is governance and how can a family adopt its framework to effectively guide their…
feet on an arrow pointing different directions - decision, choice, option
May 13, 2021

Demystifying Decision Making

Philanthropic families employ a wide range of models to make decisions—from unilateral authority to consensus. However, identifying the appropriate structure is often a challenge and can serve as a barrier to effective philanthropic practices. Developing an appropriate decision-making framework for distinct situations allows families to rely on an established and…
conference, meeting
April 14, 2022

Governance Practices for Better Decision Making

Governance practices of philanthropic families are evolving to include more diverse voices and perspectives. Two common pathways for donors to become more informed and proximate to the communities they partner with include: the appointment of an expert or community advisory committee to guide social impact strategies and decisions, and appointing…
May 12, 2022

Designing Effective Board Meetings: Purpose, Outcomes, Process, and People

Board meetings serve as a touchpoint for engaged family members and decision makers to come together in service of a collective giving effort—to make choices about strategy, direct funding, and receive updates on the philanthropy. Board meetings can also provide a space for learning and education. Join us for a…
August 10, 2017

Good Governance: How to Use Board Committees Effectively

The use of committees is one of the most important tools for thoughtful governance in family philanthropy. This webinar will take a deep dive into all the qualities of an effective committee structure. Governance experts and family foundation leaders will share successful committee models as well as conducive leadership and…
December 11, 2014

Toeing the Line: Legal Pitfalls in Family Foundation Governance

Should we accept those tickets to the opening of the new local theater that just arrived in the mail? Can our family office charge our foundation for rent? Is it o.k. for us to pay Uncle Bob to manage the foundation’s investment portfolio? Can we make a grant to our…
February 11, 2016

Toeing the line, Part 2: Legal Pitfalls in Family Foundation Grantmaking

Is it possible to make grants to individuals or organizations that are not charities? Can we support grantees where one or more of our board members has a conflict of interest? What process do we need to follow with regard to our discretionary grants, and is there a limit to…
August 13, 2015

Passing the “Mirror Test”: Ethics and family philanthropy

Your family’s philanthropic values – your sense of stewardship, your personal commitments and interests, and your desire to foster charitable impulses in your children and future generations – are the foundation of your family’s philanthropy.  Articulating and discussing values on a regular basis is part of ethically responsible giving. And…

Sample Policies, Forms, and Letters

Board Director Job Descriptions (Lipscomb Family Foundation)

Board Director:Each board member of the organization shall be responsible for: Fully understanding and committing to the mission, goals, and objectives of the organization. Fully understanding the roles and responsibilities of the Board of Directors. Fully understanding the roles and responsibilities of the staff. Fully understanding the day-to-day activities of…

R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation: Trustee Competencies

The following characteristics are offered as a guide when identifying and assessing candidates for service as a trustee of the R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation. These characteristics, taken together, represent an ideal. No one individual is expected to display a high degree of every quality. There is hope, however, that…

Board Governance Responsibilities

Getting ready to involve a new generation in governing your family foundation? Consider these challenges and desired characteristics provided by both senior generation and next generation family members.