Emeritus Board Members: Curse or Blessing?

Mom and Dad are aging but we want to keep them involved.  Aunt Sally has been running the foundation forever but the other board members feel it is time for someone else to take over.  Uncle John is beginning to get confused.  The three sisters in the second generation have been controlling things for years but the next generation wants a chance. Should we have a category of Emeritus board member for our aging members? 

There are many different possible motives in the examples above – with different implications for the appropriate roles, rights and responsibilities of Emeritus members. Some possible approaches to take: 

If Mom and Dad have already transferred leadership to the next generation, it might be easy to help them make the transition to Emeritus status. Consider suggesting that they do not need to attend all meetings, and offer them the option of discretionary grantmaking funds, either yearly or lifetime.

Aunt Sally is another matter.  One interesting idea for emeritus members is to give them (whether they want it or not!) a sabbatical year before their Emeritus status takes effect.  This would allow the board to begin to function in new ways without Aunt Sally‘s influence yet would continue access to her history and expertise.

Uncle John could become an Emeritus member who was invited to the Annual Meeting once a year. He could also be invited to share his experiences with the foundation through an oral history or similar project.

The three sisters present the most serious dilemma.  They may very well have developed leadership issues amongst themselves.  The youngest may have just been waiting for a chance to be a leader.  One option is to consider appointing them to a special committee that deals with some of the family’s historic or legacy grants.  Another idea is to consider rotating their attendance (no more than one or two emeritus member at each meeting), or to offer alternate sabbaticals.

Guidelines for Developing the Emeritus Option

Whatever your situation, be sure to identify and follow practical guidelines when setting up an Emeritus option for your board and family. Ideas to consider include: 

  • Be absolutely clear about the expectations, roles and responsibilities of Emeritus members.  While there is limited legal guidance, consider questions such as:  
    1. Do they receive a vote on grants and other board matters (usually no)?
    2. Are they asked/expected to attend all meetings, occasional meetings or just one annual meeting?
    3. Should they receive copies of board materials or other foundation communications?
    4. Other possible roles: can they serve as a mentor, have discretionary funds, or attend conferences on behalf of the foundation? 
  • Consider what the whole board needs at this point to develop new leadership. Ensure that these needs are not subverted, intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Give serious consideration to a sabbatical before an Emeritus status takes effect.
  • Make the Emeritus status possible in the bylaws, but create a policy to describe rights generally or even a resolution to describe the rights and responsibilities of a particular person.

Establishing the option of Emeritus board member will not work for all foundations – or for all individuals – but it can be a useful approach in the right situation. Contact the National Center for additional guidance and to connect with other families that have successfully used this approach.