Don’t Let It Go To Your Head – A Caution for Board Members


caution road signMany quip that once you work for or serve on a foundation board, you never have to pay for lunch and everyone laughs at your jokes. While this observation is amusing, it is true that a very real power dynamic that exists between a foundation and the nonprofit community it serves. Nowhere is this power dynamic more apparent — and more dangerous — than between a board member and his or her community.

Being in a 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. You must also 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.

No one has all the answers, but people often equate money with knowledge. 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.

The key to maintaining a balance of power is true humility. Arrogance, bossiness, or condescension on the part of a board member can have devastating effects on relationships between the foundation and nonprofits. It can make the difference between grantee organizations that work as true partners versus those that say what they think a foundation wants to hear in order to receive funding.

Here are three red flags to avoid:

  • Believing it’s your money. It’s not. It legally and technically belongs to the public. You are a trustee, and therefore you assume responsibility for ensuring that community assets are used appropriately. It’s no more your money than it is the guy’s sitting next to you at the bus stop. Never forget that.
  • Playing favorites. No doubt you have causes you believe in most passionately. There are organizations to which you feel an abiding loyalty. But as a foundation board member, you must leave those feelings at the door. Your job is to be objective, strategic, and judicious in making grants. Playing favorites can easily undermine your community’s trust in the foundation’s mission and operations and thereby diminish your hopes for effectiveness.
  • Thinking others need to prove themselves. I have worked with board members who thought so much of their positions that they felt others needed to prove themselves worthy of attention. One did so by making surprise site visits to potential grantees. (How would you like a surprise home inspection by the county health department?) Another believed firmly that a nonprofit should have to “work for the money,” and so she created an incredibly long and excessively detailed application form. The foundation staff didn’t need all that information; it was merely to make grantseekers jump through hoops, as if a nonprofit staff doesn’t have more than enough to do already to provide services to those in need.

Please, please don’t be one of these people!

Want more advice for boards? Download Kris’s article, “Don’t Do This – 10 Mistakes New Foundation Boards Make and How to Avoid Them.”


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and was recently named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers.” She is the featured speaker at the North Carolina Network of Grantmaker’s Health Legacy Foundation Board Summit on October 17th in High Point, NC.

“Kris Putnam-Walkerly knows the philanthropy field, has the relationships, and understands the behavior and culture of foundations.”

 ~Colin Lacon, Former CEO and President, Northern California Grantmakers

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