In the 10-plus years I’ve been a consultant to foundations—and the 20-plus years I’ve been a family foundation trustee—I’ve noticed a phenomenon I’ve come to call the “trustee pendulum.” Trustees often start out very engaged in grantmaking, reviewing all grants (often to organizations they know well) and managing the grantmaking process, which is typically quite informal. Then, as assets grow, programs are defined, and staff are hired, trustees tend to step back and take on an oversight role, setting policy but leaving day-to-day grantmaking to staff.
But then the pendulum swings back. Feeling disengaged from the work on the ground or feeling ill-equipped to make the strategy and policy decisions required of them, trustees dive back into the business of grantmaking. They start asking for more information instead of less. They want to read complete proposals, dissect nonprofits’ financials, and scrutinize grant reports, which would be fine, if staff weren’t tasked with exactly the same duties. Trustees and staff become frustrated with the lack of clear roles and redundancy, and grantees get put through the ringer by trustees struggling to figure out their added value. I say this as someone who has been guilty of this behavior as a foundation trustee. I would also add that the pendulum again tends to swing back as staff and trustees identify the inefficiencies of this process and attempt to correct them.
This pendulum swing is emblematic of a larger issue: When professional staff are in the mix, it is hard to figure out the right role in grantmaking for foundation trustees. On one hand, trustees need to know enough about the grantmaking to oversee it and set strategic direction. On the other hand, stepping into grantmaking’s day-to-day minutiae can lead to the aforementioned headaches.
So how can foundations figure out the right balance?
Things often go poorly when the board tries to find a meaningful role by adding another layer of scrutiny to the grantmaking process, focusing on the review of individual grants. Foundations achieve a more harmonious balance when board and staff approach the grantmaking process as a learning experience for trustees, providing them with the right quality and quantity of information to effectively govern. This requires viewing your grantees and applicants as experts with valuable knowledge—and treating them accordingly. And this doesn’t just happen organically; you need to design the process with learning as an explicit goal.
It’s worth noting that foundations of all shapes and sizes struggle to find the right balance. I have a client approaching $100 million in annual grants, and its committee members attend every site visit and read all complete proposals, regardless of grant size or renewal status; the client has come to the conclusion that this model isn’t sustainable. On the other hand, I recently completed a strategic plan for a small foundation in which the board was so disengaged that we needed a crash course in its area of focus (e.g., readings, speakers) before the board was sufficiently informed to weigh in on strategy.
Below are a few things we’ve done at the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, where I’m a trustee, to help the board find the right role in grantmaking:
- Ask the right questions. Over the years, we’ve modified our grant application and reporting documents to focus more on learning. For example, in grant reports, instead of asking primarily about what was accomplished with our grant, we ask about what was learned over the past year as an organization, how strategies have adapted, and trends they’re noticing in the field.
- Use outside experts. Bring in outside experts to get your board up to speed on relevant topics. This could be grantees, leaders from other nonprofits, academics, or others. Have an expert panel of local nonprofit leaders at your next board meeting or get grantees on the phone to talk about trends they’re seeing in their issue areas. It sounds so simple, yet I’m constantly surprised by how rarely people do it.
- Conduct a “learning tour.” As opposed to a traditional site visit, designed to learn about a particular organization, adapt your site visits to focus on learning about a field. At each annual Hill-Snowdon Foundation board meeting, held in different parts of the country where we’re funding, we spend at least a day out in the field with grant partners (and often with other organizations we’re not supporting). We give our grant partners a lot of latitude to set the agenda for these learning tours, since they know best what we should see to understand the context for their work. We’ve driven around the Mississippi delta with civil rights leaders; learned about the impact of gentrification in Atlanta; and seen firsthand the effect of changes in immigration policy on the well-being of immigrants in Washington, DC. These experiences provide a much more meaningful connection to the work than we could ever get by just reading a docket. And they have the additional benefit of serving as a unifying experience for our family board.
- Change up your write-ups. Over the years, we’ve adapted the grant summaries that staff prepare to focus more on analysis and less on summarizing. For example, for each grant, staff highlight “critical questions” that the proposal raises. These may be about our own policies (e.g., how long to support a grant partner that is struggling, and what criteria to use to determine that) or funding strategies (e.g., how to adapt our approach to the realities of demographic changes in a region). This helps keep the board’s focus where it belongs: on strategy. Staff also prepare annual “context memos” for each program, identifying major trends in the fields and situating the work of our grant partners in this context.
These are a few of the methods have worked well for us, given our board and staff skills and interests; each foundation needs to strike the balance that works best for it. It’s been an iterative process; we’ve adapted as we’ve gone, and our staff have been immensely patient as we’ve tried different approaches to get the balance right. The pendulum continues to swing, but it’s a narrower range.
Ashley Blanchard, Associate Director of Philanthropy, joined TCC Group in 2004. Her focus at the firm is strategic planning for foundations, and her clients have ranged from large institutional foundations to community foundations to smaller family foundations. She also provides ongoing management assistance to several family foundations, and works with both nonprofit and foundation clients on governance matters. In addition to her role at TCC, Blanchard is on the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women, founding co-chair of the Council on Foundation’s Next Generation Advisory Task Force, and a trustee of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation. Blanchard is the former board chair and a fourth-generation family member.