A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

5 Ways Relationships Matter: Tips From Foundation Executive Directors

For a number of years, it has been our privilege to offer programming and resources geared to the unique needs of foundation executive directors.

Most come to this work from outside philanthropy, through a mix of skill and serendipity, and work up, down, and across their organizations, often as sole-staffers or in very small offices. Managing everything from the mundane to the sublime, they truly live up to the moniker we’ve given them: Master Jugglers.

Last week, we brought together three foundation EDs for a well-attended conference call on ways to find, hire, and support those who serve in this role. The three EDs span geographic areas, ages, and paths to philanthropy, and together we discussed lessons learned, board–ED dynamics, juggling and prioritizing, and much more.

One subject emerged repeatedly: the role of strong relationships.

Here’s what we heard about how relationships play into the professional success and personal well-being of foundation EDs.

  1. Foundation EDs gain invaluable insights when out in the community, building relationships with grantees, attending community events, learning about needs, making introductions or lending advice, and, in general, serving as a trusted listener, connector, and true partner. Bonus: Because much of philanthropy is thinking ahead and thinking strategically, you’ll have a leg up if you create relationships that allow you to know your causes and community well.
  2. Set—and honor—roles and responsibilities. Be sure board and staff are clear about—and on the same page about—your respective duties. This certainly can look different from foundation to foundation, but a common successful model sees the trustees responsible for the foundation’s vision and ED as liaison to the community.
  3. To make board–ED dynamics more positive and productive, get to know one another on a personal level. High-functioning trustees and EDs put a great deal of trust in one another and are comfortable asking for help, speaking up, relying on one another’s opinions, and voicing disagreement—all behaviors that follow when you know and value someone personally.
  4. Emphasize humility and interpersonal skills when hiring an ED. Boards need candidates who are comfortable working with the foundation’s board and staff, and building relationships in the community. More specifically, boards need candidates who can operate with humility when navigating the “power of the purse.” Ask a candidate about a time he or she demonstrated humility, and listen closely to the answer.
  5. To refresh and revitalize, EDs use strategies that span the gamut from daily self-care to annual conferences to periodic sabbaticals. One ongoing strategy is particularly refreshing: regular conversations with a peer coaching circle, a consistent group of peers who offer support and hold you accountable—particularly peers from around the country who offer a safe space to discuss the players in your foundation and your community.

All in all, foundation EDs occupy an unusual occupational space. Whether serving as board wrangler, media spokesperson, convenor, collaborator, or technical assistance provider, the relationships they create—and strengthen—are vital.

For their candid reflections and wise counsel on the recent call, our sincere thanks to foundation EDs Scott Brazda of Stuller Family Foundation, Colleen O’Keefe of Sauer Family Foundation, and David Siegel of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation.

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