Last week, we looked at five mistakes that new foundation boards often make, and how to avoid them. Below are five more practices that may get new boards off to a rocky start. Fortunately, they’re all avoidable with a little foresight, planning and honest introspection.
- Failing to learn
The opportunity to expand your knowledge doesn’t stop with what you have to know. Instead, consider all of the aspects of governance, visioning, planning, collaborating, and grantmaking that you could learn because you want to know. If your foundation focuses on a particular interest area, such as education or health or social justice, consider engaging in conferences, trainings, reading, conversations, and consultations with experts to increase your knowledge. In addition, recognize the value of reflecting and learning from your own experiences. When you try something new, debrief what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved.
- Misunderstanding the power dynamic
A very real power dynamic exists between a foundation and the nonprofit community it serves. For board members, that position of power means that people are inclined to be more deferential to your opinion, even if they disagree. As a board, you must be your own critical thought partner and examine ideas – especially your own – from every angle. Strive to create an environment where those who know more about your community needs and opportunities – namely, your grantees – feel absolutely safe and comfortable in sharing their honest and candid opinions and ideas with you. Be the first to admit when your board is unsure of an idea it has surfaced, when you feel you need someone else to be the expert, or when you’ve made a mistake. This type of humility and candor will help rebalance the power for change and collaboration in your community and move everyone further, faster.
- Letting it go to your head
Arrogance, bossiness, or condescension on the part of a board member can have devastating effects on relationships between the foundation and nonprofits. Never make the mistake of assuming (or acting as if) the foundation’s assets are your money. Avoid the temptation to play favorites with the causes or organizations you believe in most passionately. And don’t ever invent hoops through which others need to jump to prove themselves worthy if your time or attention.
- Failing to seek community input
No matter where your board comes from, there are always people in your community who will know a heck of a lot more about teen pregnancy, substance abuse, mental health, violence, arts education, or any topic than you will. There are also those who truly know what it means to live in a certain neighborhood, or attend a certain school, or spend time behind bars. Seek input from the people you are trying to help about what they experience, what they desire most, and what you might be able to do.
Gathering community feedback can be as simple as having informal conversations or as formal as hosting focus groups or task forces that include community members. Just make sure that you create an environment where they feel comfortable speaking frankly about their views, and be ready to follow up quickly in a meaningful way to let them know you appreciated their time and their willingness to share.
- Failing to hold one another accountable
By design, a board is meant to ensure that the will of one does not outweigh the overall judgment of the group. However, politeness and decorum often prevent board members from addressing conflict in constructive ways. As a result, boards can become divided, schisms can disrupt the proceedings, and vision and goals can get seriously sidetracked. To avoid situations like these, create a policy for airing differences respectfully and thoughtfully, preferably as they arise and within the confines of a board meeting, so that feelings of distrust or resentment have no opportunity to grow. Agree at the outset that you will not always agree. Understand that you don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to work together as a cohesive unit.
A new foundation board – unlike corporate boards or government officials – has very little enforced accountability. Success or failure depends a great deal on how seriously board members take their role as a governing body and as a community asset and partner. It can seem intimidating, but with the right advice, training, and attitude, you can create a lasting legacy for the community you serve.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly is an internationally recognized philanthropy expert who often speaks to foundations about good governance in philanthropy, on topics such such as the essential roles of foundation boards, good grantmaking, managing and exceeding expectations, and having a poverty vs abundance mentality in philanthropy. Contact her at email@example.com if you are interested in booking a speaker for your next event, or hosting a training for your board.
“Kris ‘gets’ philanthropy in a way that few consultants can match. I find her voice and her ideas refreshing, inspiring and always a bright spot of common sense and sanity in a sometimes crazy field.”
– Shawn Dove, CEO, Campaign for Black Male Achievement