A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Hypothesis: Shorter Board Terms Can Increase Family Engagement

As the president of a family foundation that has made the transition to an all third-generation board, I am often asked by colleagues for tips on successfully engaging next gen family members. Here is one: consider offering one-year, renewable board terms to family.

I haven’t done a study on this, but I would guess that many boards have adopted something akin to the traditional model of three-year terms. Three-year terms have the advantage of providing some certainty about board composition, but a three-year commitment can be daunting to a family member who is not well into middle age. At an earlier stage in life, it can be difficult to know where you will be in three years. You could go to grad school far away, get married, start a new job, start another new job, become a parent, or move to a different state or another country. With all that uncertainty, a three-year commitment to anything can seem onerous. Some might decide to forgo the board altogether.

At The Durfee Foundation, we have long had a practice of offering one-year, renewable terms to family trustees. We also have non-family trustees, who are elected for two-year, nonrenewable terms. Some family members renew year after year. Others have taken breaks at different times in their lives when the demands of family or work did not allow board service. Board terms begin in January, and we check in with trustees each fall to see what their plans are for the coming year.

Durfee currently has seven third-generation family trustees ranging in age from late 20s to 50s, and two non-family trustees.

One-year terms also have the advantage of providing the opportunity to evaluate the commitment annually and keep it fresh. Durfee sets clear guidelines for what it expects from trustees, and new family trustees must complete a yearlong onboarding process before they can be elected to the board. The yearly renewal process requires both the board and the trustee to evaluate their commitment regularly. Durfee asks its board members each fall how they would like to engage in the coming year: Go on site visits? Sit on a grant selection panel? Meet with investment advisors? In this way, we hope to make board service a continual learning opportunity.

Do one-year board terms create chaos, with uncertainty about how many we will have on the board from one year to the next?

Actually, no. Most trustees renew; it is exceptional when someone takes a break from the board. My theory is that the one-year terms make it more likely that family members will engage because they can see the horizon of a one-year commitment.

Times have changed. Nobody graduating from college in the 21st century believes that he or she will remain with the same employer for life. Young people are more mobile than ever, and foundation boards need to question some of their longstanding practices if they want to engage new generations. Questioning longer board terms is a good place to start.

Carrie AveryCarrie Avery is president of The Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles, which focuses on leadership by providing fellowships, grants to new grassroots organizations with dynamic leadership, and sabbaticals to longtime nonprofit leaders. She serves on the boards of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations in Washington, D.C., the RGK Foundation in Austin, Texas, and the Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California. She is a past board chair of the National Center for Family Philanthropy and Northern California Grantmakers, and co-chaired the board of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco.

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