Trustees: Support Your Leaders or Lose Them

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Philanthropy CEOs are looking for new jobs due to a lack of support from trustees


In the past year, I’ve advised, coached, and spoken with hundreds of philanthropy executives and one theme has emerged: Frustration and disappointment with unsupportive and obstinate trustees.

As a result, many foundation CEOs are beginning to look elsewhere – for new jobs, new careers, or retirement. If trustees don’t act now, they will lose their leaders to better opportunities and be left holding the bag.

Consider these examples:

  • A family foundation CEO whose board member regularly barges into her office unannounced, commands her to do his bidding, ignores her ideas, and then walks out the door while she is mid-sentence.
  • A seasoned CEO of a private foundation, nationally recognized for her expertise, who experienced sexual harassment from several trustees.
  • A community foundation CEO who tripled the foundation’s assets during the past three years, yet trustees balked at his request to increase his low compensation package.
  • The solo CEO who wears every hat and works every weekend. She’s expected to lead the foundation to create and execute a new strategy, develop collaborative relationships with national partners, and navigate the foundation through tricky local politics. She’s also expected to code every grant, handle the bookkeeping, and mop the floor. Despite sizable foundation assets, her board refuses to invest in additional support.
  • The CEO of a private foundation whose board has no term limits. Many trustees have served on the board for 20+ years. Although he was hired to revamp the foundation and create a new strategy, trustees resist his ideas and thwart his recommendations.

I could go on.

These are real stories. They are also recent stories. And in every instance, the foundation CEO is seriously contemplating leaving their job.

At the very least this behavior is unsupportive. At worst it’s abusive. And it’s all about to become time-consuming and expensive.

Frustrated, overworked, and unappreciated leaders often leave unexpectedly. Trustees then must scramble to manage the foundation in the interim, handle reputational damage control, and engage in the time-consuming process of recruiting, hiring, and onboarding the next leader. If you are a trustee, is that how you want to spend your time?

The cost of leadership turnover is also extremely high: it’s estimated that losing an employee can cost an organization 1.5-2 times the employee’s salary. This is due to the costs of recruiting and hiring, interim staffing, and the problems turnover causes for staff left behind such as low staff morale, low productivity, and the triggering of additional staff departures.

So, what’s a trustee to do?

Luckily, the solution is not that complicated. The CEOs I’ve been talking to genuinely believe in the missions of their foundations and the power of philanthropy. They would be thrilled to stay in their roles if they felt genuinely supported. They wish ALL their trustees:

  • Appreciated them
  • Acknowledged their results and accomplishments
  • Valued their knowledge and expertise
  • Responded quickly to their requests for help and feedback
  • Were open to new ways of working, leading, and giving
  • Asked them how they are doing, what they need, and how they can help
  • Followed good governance practices, including trustee term limits (an easy rule of thumb is if you think politicians should have term limits, then trustees should have them too!)
  • Stood up for them when fellow trustees are being inappropriate or underperforming
  • Were willing to streamline grantmaking processes to eliminate tedious, duplicative, and time-consuming activities that waste the leader’s time.

Notice how none of the above requires any financial investment and minimal time investment!

CEOs would also appreciate it if their trustees invested in the capacity of the foundation such as:

  • Approving sufficient staffing so CEOs don’t have to work every evening and weekend
  • Supporting the CEO (and team’s) professional leadership development and coaching
  • Compensating them appropriately (relative to the foundation’s size, type, and location)
  • Investing in appropriate systems, infrastructure, communications, and technology to increase efficiencies, increase philanthropic impact, and better serve grantees
  • Investing in succession planning far in advance of the leader’s departure. That way whenever the leader leaves (even if 5-10 years from now), the foundation has developed and can execute a thoughtful plan that not only ensures a smooth leadership transition but also strengthens the foundation.

I know YOU want to be a supportive board member! You genuinely want to help your CEO and foundation thrive. But if you are thinking “Our CEO feels the board of directors supports her 110%,” think again. 

If you are the trustee of a grantmaking foundation (or any nonprofit), ask yourself if you and your colleagues are doing everything you can to support your leader. Then ask yourself how you would feel if that leader suddenly departed. If the answers are “I’m not sure” and “That would be awful” it’s time to have a conversation with your CEO!

It’s easy. Just start with “I’d like to know how you are REALLY doing, what you need, and how the board can help you.” Then listen, take notes and act.

If you are a foundation trustee and want some advice as to how you can be more supportive of your CEO, let’s talk!  If you’re a foundation CEO looking for guidance on how to better engage and gain support from your board members, schedule a call with me.

© 2022 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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