Should we have non-family trustees?

There is no legal obligation to include non-family members as trustees. Experience in the field is widely varied. Many foundations include only family members who are blood relatives, and others include family members by marriage. Many others will have one “outside” trustee, typically an old family friend and/or someone with legal or accounting experience.

Still others include as a matter of policy one or more trustee slots for non-family members and seek candidates who will add expertise and perspective to the Board’s deliberation. In some cases, the number of outside trustee positions is greater than those for family members. And, some foundations with family members only on the board establish formal advisory committees of outside experts in order to gain perspective without changing board membership.

Unless the original terms of the legal documents establishing the foundation prohibit non-family trustees, attention to ethically responsible philanthropy would encourage consideration of adding non-family members either to the board or to an advisory committee. Doing so contributes to wider public accountability of the foundation by enabling family trustees to broaden their perspective in ways that might not otherwise be possible. Indeed, some of those interviewed commented that family trustees “behave better” when non-family members are included in the deliberations.

NOTE: This Ask the Center is reprinted with permission from Michael Rion’s book, Responsible Family Philanthropy: A Resource Book on Ethical Decisionmaking for Family Foundations, originally published in 1998 by the Council on Foundations. While the book is no longer in print, you may be interested in watching the replay of NCFP’s August 2015 webinar, titled “Passing the ‘Mirror Test’: Ethics and Family Philanthropy.”