Twelve qualities of the good trustee

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.

Twelve qualities of the good trustee

1. Introduction: What should you look for in a trustee?

There is no single set of answers. A family foundation needs interested family members; a community foundation needs people who know and care about the community; special purpose foundations seek people with competence in their area of expertise; general purpose foundations depend on breadth of view; and yet, there are certain qualifications beneficial to all foundations that indicate when someone is a good candidate….

2. Look for trustees who truly care about your foundation.

The responsibilities of a trustee are much too demanding for anyone who lacks enthusiasm for the job. Look for someone who repeatedly demonstrates the desire to go above and beyond what is normally required. The best candidates make the foundation’s priorities their priorities.

3. Find trustees who understand your foundation’s mission.

Eleanor Elliott, long-time board member of the Foundation for Child Development, advised that every trustee should be able to answer the question: “In 50 words or less, what is this place all about?” This question seems simple but requires forethought to answer—a knowledgeable candidate will stand out from the crowd.

4. Remember: objectivity and impartiality are a sine qua non.

The boardroom of your foundation is no place for special interests, temperamental bias or personal whim. The trustee should be seen as a judge, not an advocate, save with respect to the foundation’s priorities. Look for people who can hear all sides of a discussion before forming an opinion.

5. Choose trustees with skills that support your foundation.

Your board will need certain core competencies among its members such as management, investment experience, budgets and legal expertise. Not all trustees need possess each attribute. Determine the gaps in current member skills to ensure some trustees possess these skills and use them appropriately to support the foundation.

6. Look for team players.

In foundations, major decisions are rarely made by one person. That’s why trustees must be able to resolve their personal differences and work together as a single body to achieve their goals. Too much confrontation indicates a lack of respect for one’s fellow trustees, and makes reaching a consensus impossible; colleagues must be able to collaborate even when they disagree.

7. Choose trustees who are willing to work.

Make sure candidates understand the scope of their responsibilities and demonstrate the willingness to give their time and energy to the foundation. This might mean arranging one’s personal schedule to accommodate meetings, serving on committees, undertaking special assignments or wrestling with the day-to-day operations of the foundation.

8. Recognize the value of practical wisdom in trustees.

Look for candidates with the capacity to see the big picture. Not only is it important for them to recognize the validity of opposing arguments; they must also be able to distinguish principle from expediency, and transform their ideals into solutions that work in the “real” world.

9. Look for people who are committed to the foundation.

Simply put, the trustee’s sole responsibility is the foundation and its mission. Special interest groups or other constituencies should not be a party to the discussion of foundation interests through its trustees, nor should they have the ability to influence decisions.

10. Choose trustees who are committed to philanthropy.

No foundation is an island unto itself. Every trustee, even in small family foundations, has a responsibility to act in a way that strengthens the world of philanthropic foundations. Candidates who truly believe in the good that comes from philanthropy are often best suited to working within these structures. Photo courtesy of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

11. Look for trustees who show moral sensitivity in the act of giving.

Power dynamics and oversized egos exist even in the world of philanthropy, but good candidates aren’t interested in wielding power. They feel a sense of outrage over people dying of cancer or AIDS, over children born to poverty and deprivation or over the continued destruction of the environment. Trustees with moral sensitivity care about their mission. Photo courtesy of the Lawrence Welk Family Foundation.

12. Plan to succeed.

If you want your foundation to continue more than one or two generations into the future, careful planning and recruitment will make the difference between an effective philanthropic institution, and one where perceptions of unfairness and uncertainty abound. Planning ahead for who will participate on your board, when and for how long, will keep such decisions from becoming personal, make transitions easier and help ensure effective governance.

Need more information?

This slide show presented a brief overview of the twelve qualities of a good trustee for a family philanthropy.  If you need more information, see these comprehensive resources from the National Center for Family Philanthropy:

  • Trustee Education Institute
  • The Trustee Notebook: An Orientation for Family Foundation Board Members
  • Voyage of Discovery: A Planning Workbook for Philanthropic Families
  • Splendid Legacy: The Guide to Creating Your Family Foundation
  • The Power to Produce Wonders: The Value of Family Philanthropy