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, consider starting 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

Good Governance: How Should Family Foundation Boards Spend Their Time?

Checks landing in the mailboxes of nonprofit organizations with foundation return ad-dresses have long been considered philanthropy’s most important currency. Reflecting that view, family foundations have tended to focus their operations, self-image, and their very reasons for being on getting the dollars out the door...

Twelve qualities of the good trustee

New Media
Determining the process for choosing trustees to act as stewards of your philanthropy’s assets is one of the most important decisions you must make.  The slideshow below will take you through the twelve qualities of a good trustee.

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.

Ten Essential Responsibilities of Foundation Board Chairs

If you are new to nonprofit leadership, you may not know what is expected of a board chair. This primer is designed to increase your understanding of the role by presenting a brief introduction to nonprofit governance and foundation leadership.

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.

Ethics and Values

Why Did I Make All This Money: Values And Ethics In Family Foundations

Book Chapter
Donors who create successful family foundations generally begin by addressing three kinds of issues. The first are immediate and worldly- tax consequences, legal relationships, and family involvement, public visibility, and so forth. The second are a pair of searching issues that every donor must answer: Why did I make all …
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 …

Surdna Foundation: Code of Ethics

This collection of policies from the Surdna Foundation describe their approach in a variety of important areas regarding grantee relationships and interactions with the donor and donor's family.

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

Six Tips for Managing Family Dynamics

New Media
Whatever differences your family may have, those differences need not get in the way of your philanthropic goals. Your challenge is to find ways to channel the bonds of family in the service of a shared vision and anticipate the conflicts that inevitably arise.
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 and …

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

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest and 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 …

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, …

Additional Resources: Videos, Slideshows, and Webinars

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 …

So you want to be a family foundation trustee?

Do you have younger family members who are interested in learning more about whether being a family foundation trustee is right for them? Are you looking for a quick and fun way to introduce them to concept of stewardship and the demands and possible challenges of being a foundation board …
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 …
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 …

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 …

Criteria for trusteeship

Sample listing of key attributes to be used as guidelines by the nominating committee of a foundation or advised fund when considering candidates for election to the board of trustees or advisors.