The roles of foundation board trustees and foundation staff must radically change

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Hi everyone. Thank you so much to all of you who have filled out the Fundraising Perception Survey, which is a quick scan of how folks (fundraisers and non-fundraisers) are feeling about the way we do fundraising in general. This is critical information, so please take 10 minutes to fill it out if you haven’t, and ask your networks to do so as well. Thank you for helping advance our sector.


In the past few months, there have been some critical feedback for philanthropy. The criticisms are not new. Over the years have been many articles, often written by former program officers, with the same heavy criticisms pointed out by Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth and Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All. The difference this time is that it seems philanthropy, to its credit, is taking things more seriously. The issues are brought to plenary level at philanthropic summits, whereas in the past they may have been a poorly-attended workshop at best.

Still, there is the danger of intellectualizing, when foundation leaders spend endless amounts of time reflecting and talking (usually within “safe spaces”) about How We Can Do Better, without actually changing anything of substance once the conference is over. This is not for lack of trying. I know many program officers who are just as frustrated as nonprofit leaders are, who are also beating their heads repeated against walls in support of vital, research-backed practices like multi-year general operating support.

The biggest challenge that program officers bring up for why things don’t change is that foundation board trustees have all the power. Trustees make the final decisions on who gets funded, how, in which priority areas. And the power dynamics between program officers and board trustees mirror the power dynamics between nonprofits and program officers. This means it is incredibly difficult for program officers to give honest feedback to their boards, the way it is hard for nonprofits to be honest with program officers.

In light of the urgency of our sociopolitical climate, of the growing level racism and bigotry, of horrifying atrocities like children being separated from their families and put into cages, many default philosophies and practices of philanthropy are not only ineffective, they are actually increasing the inequity and injustice in the world and thus are contrary to the stated goals of philanthropy.

In the current way that foundations are set up, we’ve been underutilizing both trustees and program officers, hampering both parties and trickling down this ineffectiveness to nonprofits. For philanthropy to accomplish its overarching mission of a just and equitable society, the roles of both foundation board trustees and foundation staff must radically change:

Foundation staff must have the trust and autonomy to make funding and other decisions: The current practice of foundation trustees making the final decisions on who gets funded, how much, and by when makes little sense. It has been ineffective, if not harmful to our sector’s work. Trustees, for all the influence you have in society, you are the least knowledgeable on, the least experienced with, and the least connected to the work and to communities most affected by injustice. This is why you hire staff. But why hire smart and dedicated people if you will not let them do their jobs by allowing them the autonomy to make funding and other important decisions?

From talking to some program officers, including a few CEOs, across the US, I know many who feel that this concentration of decision-making authority at the trustee level is a serious barrier to their work and to the sector, probably the biggest barrier. These staff spend significant time trying to catch trustees up and to convince them to adopt recommendations on things that are outside trustees’ professional and personal experience. Imagine if you’re an engineer that has to spend months convincing non-engineers on which materials to use to build a bridge, because for some reason these non-engineers get to make the final decision on how to build the bridge despite having little or no engineering experience. This is a waste of talent and a recipe for frustrated staff, slow and poor decision-making, and crappy, unsound bridges.

In the urgency of this sociopolitical moment, program officers must have power and autonomy to make decisions quickly. Our sector has been talking a lot about trust lately, thanks to the work of funders like The Whitman Institute and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. To be effective partners in addressing systemic injustice, funders must trust nonprofits to do our work. And foundation board members must ensure the staff they hire reflect the community and then trust them with the power and autonomy to not just make recommendations, but actual decisions.

Trustees focus their energy on creating alignment around ambitious, visionary goals: Yielding significant power to staff may be existentially discomforting to trustees. You may be wondering what is the point of the board’s existence if staff are making all the funding decisions. But this is the exciting part. In our current system, trustees are mired in micromanagement: reviewing applications, determining which organizations get a grant, whether the grant is one year or three, which questions to include on grant reports, etc. These tasks, as important as they are, are a waste of your skills and connections. Hire the staff who reflect the people you serve and who have the skills and lived experience to work well with the community, and then let them do their work.

What the sector needs is for trustees, as influential members of the community, to use your privilege and voice to get everyone aligned on visionary goals such as marriage equality, responsible gun laws, climate change, mental health, disability, poverty, etc. A multi-millionaire board trustee stating publicly that they are in support of capital gains taxes, and then getting foundation and their friends and friends’ foundations behind it, for example, can significantly help in the fight for an equitable tax code.

Your help in getting broad alignment on significant societal issues is way more impactful to the sector than your spending hours reviewing proposals. It is complex and will take time to do well. But here’s the thing: You have privilege and connections that very few of us in the sector have. Because of that, you can say and do things that no one else can. This is what you must focus on, moving forward. Please stop squandering your power and influence on things that staff can handle more effectively, like choosing whom to fund. We need you to use your privilege to talk to other people of privilege, because you are often the only ones they will listen to.

Learn to let go. In the last few years, despite our best efforts, the level of injustice continues to rise unabated. The problems facing our society are urgent and relentless. We must examine whether the philosophies and practices that we are used to have been working or not, or worse, if they are actually helping to perpetuate the injustice we are claiming to fight, and we must let go of the things that hold our sector back.

The default roles of foundation board trustees and foundation staff are one of these things. When there is so much injustice, the excuse that philanthropy cannot change because power is concentrated within board trustees is no longer acceptable. We must move to a system where foundation staff are equipped with the power and autonomy to do their jobs. And the people with the most privilege–the trustees–get out of the weeds and use their influence more strategically to advance ambitious societal goals. And nonprofits have the trust and resources to respond quickly and effectively to injustice.

Shifting roles will not be easy. If funding decisions are concentrated among foundation staff, there are still many complex issues, such as how the staff will make decisions, including when to yield decision-making to community. There remain issues of representation, since most foundation staff are white, and the majority of senior staff are white men. Many staff come from corporate or academia and also may not have the experience or knowledge to make good decisions, as I pointed out earlier. Trustees’ work of strengthening alignment around ambitious goals, meanwhile, is involved and time-consuming, and many trustees may not have been trained to do this effectively.

All of us will have to accept a degree of risk and failure and existential angst. But the challenges facing our communities require that we rise out of our complacency, reexamine archaic power structures and the harmful practices that stem from them, and fundamentally shift the way we do things.


Announcement: 3rd Annual Beverage to Enhance Equity in Relationships (BEER) on June 21st, 2019

Hi everyone, I’m happy to announce that the 3rd annual BEER event will be held across the nation on Friday, June 21st, Summer Solstice, a time for renewal. This event was created as a way for funders (including trustees) and nonprofits to get together over a drink, coffee, donuts, or ice cream, and just hang out without an agenda. I know it won’t solve the power dynamics issues pervasive in our sector, but it’s a start. Here are a few events folks are working on, with more to come. Please use this as an opportunity to start some event in your city; there are no rules, except don’t have a long agenda/program. (Email me if you’re doing something, so I can list it in a future post)

  • Twin Cities: Social hour co-hosted by GrantAdvisor, The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, The Minnesota Council on Foundations, PEAK Grantmaking Minnesota, and the Minnesota-Northstar chapter of GPA.
  • Baltimore: A Social Sector Coffee and Donuts –  hosted by the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers in partnership with Impact Hub Baltimore and Maryland Nonprofits.
  • Boston: A Coffee & Donuts Conversation hosted by the Social Innovation Forum 
  • Frederick, MD: Federated Charities will be hosting an event, but it might be on June 20th
  • DC: GEO will be co-hosting, with more details to come
  • Seattle: I am actually in town. Something is coming, and it will likely include chocolate and kombucha

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