An Introduction to Trustee Education for Family Foundations

Note: This article was written and released in 2001 as part of NCFP’s Living the Legacy guide.

A Rich Tradition of Service: Volunteer Leadership for The Public Good

Americans have established a deep, rich tradition of volunteerism. From the Pilgrim’s Social Compact of 1620, which emphasized government based upon consent and “care for each other’s good,” to the present day “a thousand points of light,” volunteerism has been an integral part of who we are. It is through volunteering that we give expression to our abiding belief that we share responsibility for the quality of life within our communities. Alexis de Tocqueville commented on this uniquely American behavior after a visit in May, 1831:

These Americans are the most peculiar people in the world. You’ll not believe it when I tell you how they behave. In a local community in their country, a citizen may conceive of some need which is not being met. What does he do? He goes across the street and discusses it with a neighbor. Then what happens? A committee comes into being and then the committee begins to function on behalf of the need. You won’t believe this, but it’s true; all of this is done by private citizens on their own initiative!

We expect to participate in the formation of effective responses to social issues and problems. We eagerly involve ourselves in establishing, supporting, and maintaining institutions we believe can effectively address these issues. Volunteers who serve as trustees are the embodiment of this shared responsibility. Their responsibility, while inclusive of current operations, must also be transcendent of them. The responsibility they bear which distinguishes them from other volunteers is that they hold the organization in trust. This is especially true for private, family foundations, where trustees are often family members and related to the original donor. They are trustholders in a special sense.


Trustees of a family foundation have legal and financial responsibilities for the organization. As trustholders of a shared vision and philanthropic tradition they also have a depth of care for and commitment to the institution equivalent to what one would find in an intimate relationship. Such a strong sense of responsibility is rooted in their deep understanding of the organization and a clear knowledge of its character and identity. They are able to embrace what the organization is while simultaneously being able to see what it can be. Parker Palmer describes such a trustholder as someone who is “powerfully present, but not intrusive.” They are involved but not in violation of the others’ integrity. He adds: “Those who hold an organization in trust keep themselves indispensable and know when to let go and to move on for the sake of the organization.”

Successful family foundation trustees are individuals who recognize the mutuality of relationship between the donor and succeeding generations. They realize their own self-interests should not be permitted to dominate the larger interests of the foundation.

The trustholders of family foundations realize that their responsibilities of governance and leadership include the expansion of interests and concerns to a larger community. Trustees are entrusted to act on behalf of the foundation and in the interest of the common good. As with any shared undertaking in an organization, those who are trustees bring varying beliefs, values, and opinions about what is best for the community. They act as a permeable membrane – transmitting the needs of the community to the foundation and interpreting the knowledge, identity, and activities of the organization to the community. In this way their decision making occurs within the context of the whole community and they hold both the foundation and the community in trust. Trustees of family foundations will find it challenging to widen their sphere of attention, learning, and activity, particularly because it demands that they negotiate and mediate between private intentions and public realities. To do this in a manner that honors institutional integrity while positioning the organization to be adaptive and responsive is the work of leadership.

Family Foundation Trustees as Leaders

Institutions need two kinds of leaders: those who are inside and carry the active day-to-day roles; and those who stand outside but are intimately concerned, and who, with the benefit of some detachment, oversee the active leaders. These are Trustees.

                        —Robert Greenleaf

Implicit in Greenleaf’s use of “oversee” and “detachment” is the need for trustees to see things whole and to take the longer view by benefit of some distance from the daily pressures of organizational life. The challenge of maintaining this big-picture perspective is essential to the board’s ability to lead family foundations across generations and into the future.

Those who serve as trustees of these special philanthropic foundations are in significant positions of leadership. Not only are they responsible for creating a vision and determining the future direction of the organization, they must also establish and maintain the overarching beliefs and values which shape and continue to shape its character, define and guide its work, and affect those it serves.

Fulfillment of the responsibilities of trusteeship requires both management and leadership skills. Not-for-profit organizations have long understood the value of preparing volunteers to assume their roles and responsibilities; numerous orientation and training programs exist to help board members do their jobs effectively. The majority of these programs emphasize knowledge of management skills, i.e., hiring and firing the executive director, organizing and structuring the board, long-range planning, and fiscal responsibility. Such emphasis has helped boards to fulfill their legal and financial obligations as trustees, and it has provided a needed sense of competence, of “doing things right,” a trait Warren Bennis uses to describe what managers do.

These managerial functions are crucial to enabling a board to be effective in its governance role. However, focusing predominantly or solely on the management role trustees have can adversely affect the development of leadership necessary to bring an organization to excellence. The management role by necessity focuses on the day-to-day details of operation. The larger view gives way to a task-oriented, short-term approach to achieving specific goals.

A number of surveys have confirmed that there is inadequate or incomplete preparation given to most family foundation trustees, either before they join the board or during their tenure. What we must equip trustees to bring to an organization is the competent grasp of the organization’s history and its larger purpose, two abiding sources of inspiration which fuel the organization’s behavior and actions. Equally important to “doing things right” is “doing the right thing,” a trait of leadership. Helping boards “do the right thing” mandates a different conceptualization of what it means to serve on a board. It requires a non-traditional approach to the preparation, education, and development of trustees. Such an approach incorporates the idea that trusteeship is more a matter of identity than of a role, and this identity includes the responsibilities of leadership.

“Doing the right thing” does not mean that there is a prescription specifying what trustees should decide. From our point of view, it implies preparation of trustees to more capably discern the context within which decision making needs to occur so that both the foundation and the community can benefit. Trustees who understand what it means to “do the right thing” know that they are architects of a culture and that their actions can serve to create and profoundly influence the character of the organization, and ultimately the quality of life in the community.

Trustees who are attentive to the culture within and without the foundation will help the organization prosper. Their decision making is grounded in the context of family and foundation values and tradition in addition to community history, organizational purpose, beliefs, and values and positions the organization to move closer to its vision of the preferred future. Such preparation and understanding can help trustees to blend prudence with creativity, ensuring growth while maintaining organizational integrity. Such preparation can unite a foundation’s donor legacy with the evolving values and perspective of family trustees.

Preparation for Trusteeship

We believe that preparation for effective trusteeship begins with a process which encompasses reflection upon the foundation’s history, mission, publics, and future. This process applies to all types of philanthropic institutions with a governing body. It is especially helpful to family foundations that strive to sort out the personal and the institutional, and the private and the public good. These four areas constitute a depth approach to trustee education that nurtures the roots of all organizational behavior. We believe that such an approach best prepares those entrusted with the governance of an organization for the leadership role they assume as trustees of the family foundation.

The first area trustees as leaders must be knowledgeable about is the organization’s history. The history of an organization is the unique story and identity of the institution. It chronicles the collective institutional memory, the organization’s recorded and observed life, significant people, events, issues, problems, and successes which have shaped the organization over time. It is the common thread woven through all other areas which helps trustees comprehend the foundation’s mission, culture, character, identity, and movement through time. Dr. Robert Lynn, former senior vice-president of religion at the Lilly Endowment and a noted scholar on the subject of trusteeship, describes the importance of history in the following statement: “An institution whose leaders are out of touch with its movement through time – its trajectory – is often in serious difficulty. Historical amnesia is always debilitating and occasionally fatal.” This is an important reminder for trustees of family foundations, where the passing on of the core values and traditions to succeeding generations of family members and trustees is critical to the transmission of a vital and creative family and community resource.

Effective trustee leadership also incorporates knowledge of mission, i.e., why does the foundation exist? What were the donor(s) purposes? What values animated giving? These questions are imperative! The answers reflect the heart and soul of a family foundation. Mission is the organization’s unique overarching purpose and identity; it is the expression of the organization’s deep, abiding beliefs and values. It is mission that provides the major standard against which all the organization’s activities, i.e., programs, services, and decisions should be evaluated. It, more than any other element of trustee education, is the foundation of organizational congruence. Do the organization’s beliefs and values match its behavior? A major function of trustees of a family foundation is that of being creators and guardians of the mission and therefore the monitors of organizational congruence.

In this approach to trustee education, the board must also have a knowledge of the organization’s publics; whom does the institution exist to serve? We have discovered that, in order for organizations to answer this question, they must understand the meaning of the phrase “to serve.” To truly serve one’s publics requires knowledge and understanding of their needs. Trustees use this knowledge in setting policies which enable the organization’s staff to provide appropriate and effective programs. The very process of answering this question can help boards to define the foundation’s primary clients and establish boundaries of outreach and accountability. The question, “Whom do we exist to serve?” also helps the board to see the institution’s served publics in the context of a larger community and reminds it of its interconnectedness with other systems. It also enables trustees to keep the big-picture focus so necessary for visualizing creative, relevant programs and for visualizing the institution’s future.

The future is the fourth area included in the education of trustees and is perhaps the one with which they are most familiar. More commonly known as long-range planning, it prepares the governing body to anticipate and project the organization’s existence three to 15 years ahead. The foundation for this future planning is a solid knowledge of the organization’s history, mission, and publics. Trustees need to be aware of, anticipate, and interpret events and issues which are likely to affect their family foundation. Asking trustees to plan without such information is like asking a gardener to grow a tree with limited to no knowledge of the uniqueness of the tree, the composition of the soil, necessary nutrients, climate, or the environment. In order to increase the chances for the tree to prosper, the gardener must be aware of the whole picture. Similarly, the growth and stability of nearly any family foundation will depend upon trustees who have a solid understanding of the uniqueness of the foundation and the larger environment within which it lives. This gives urgency to the need to be more conscious and intentional in the recruitment, education, and development of who will be trustees. They will be the carriers of the values and traditions and will be deciding how these will be lived out in policies and programs well beyond their tenure.

Determining an organization’s future begins with a shared vision of what the organization can do and be. Effective trustees have developed a capacity to dream beyond what exists in the here and now and can translate their images of what can be into specific plans. The ability to dream frees trustees from using problems as the primary basis for planning. The motivation for envisioning the future becomes one of creation rather than correction. Organizations need leaders who aren’t imprisoned by the past or encumbered by limited thinking. They need leaders with vision who can see ahead and who will risk pointing the way.

Building The Servanthood Of Trustees And Organizations

Robert Greenleaf writes in the essay, “The Servant Leader”:

…If a better society is to be built, one more just and loving and providing opportunity for people to grow, the most effective and economical way, while supportive of the social order, is to raise the performance as servant of as many institutions as possible by new voluntary regenerative actions initiated within them by committed individuals…

The depth approach to trustee education described here focuses on developing board leadership capable of compassionate service and competent leadership through the years. In this way, family foundations can be helped to transform themselves and to achieve excellence by remaining in touch with the values and legacies that came before and educating current and new trustees. In this way organizational transformation is constructive and achievement of excellence is more likely. A strong sense of trusteeship begins with enabling the leadership within our family foundations to understand their special role as trustholders. Through a four-part educational process like the one we have described, we believe that we can help to build the capacity of trustees and family foundations to serve and to lead. In holding the foundation in trust, the values and vitality of a foundation can connect its past, present, and future. These connections leave a legacy of caring and competence that shapes the foundation’s authenticity and integrity; it is a legacy that helps to preserve the best of a foundation while contributing in significant ways to the development of community. What better education for trustees and what better contribution to the community?