What is the Appropriate Role for Non-Family Trustees and How Are They Selected? Should They Be Treated Any Differently from Family Trustees?

Non-family trustee positions should be clearly defined, regarding both criteria for filling the position and the length, renewability, etc., of terms. Although nothing prevents trustees from simply appointing their closest friends and advisors without regard to other criteria, ethical responsibility considerations would suggest some more objective criteria related to the mission and purpose of the foundation and the rationale for having non-family trustees.

Equally important, family trustees should endeavor to provide good orientation to new non-family trustees and to treat them with full respect as fellow trustees. It is potentially very awkward for a single “outsider” to play a fully active trustee role if one is made to feel that one is merely a “guest” of the family. Responsible foundations will be quite intentional about ensuring that non-family trustees are fully included as equals in board deliberations. Indeed, some trustees have observed that one benefit to the family trustees of a non-family trustee is that their participation reminds the family members that they are acting in their organizationally defined trustee roles in meetings.


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.”

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