A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

The Benefits of Trustee Diversity

Photo by Rebrand Cities from Pexels

The Valentine Foundation actively recruits diverse trustees to serve on the board, make grants and oversee all aspects of the foundation’s mission.

Phoebe Valentine inherited her wealth from Smith Kline Pharmaceuticals. When she was in her late 40s, Phoebe received a dire cancer diagnosis and decided to mobilize her wealth to help others.

The first trustees

When the Valentine Foundation was founded in 1985, the original trustees were named by Phoebe. She selected two longtime friends along with her lawyer, bible study teacher and financial advisor. All were skilled White women, and they were appointed for life. Phoebe wanted to share the joy and responsibility of being a philanthropist with women she admired, and she wanted their company on her personal philanthropic journey. The mission of the foundation, determined by the trustees after a facilitated brainstorming weekend, was to fund women and girls’ programs and organizations.

It did not take long before the trustees decided that a life term was too long. Thus, they limited terms to three years, renewable once. As the original trustees left, and new ones joined the board, the search broadened from friends and acquaintances to an intentional search for women of color. The original trustees came to understand that their perspectives as all White women were too uniform. They realized the value in hearing from people with different perspectives and lived experiences.

Increasing trustee diversity

Trustees are nominated and interviewed with an intentional preference for people of color and those living in the communities that our grantee organizations serve. The value of this approach is that the folks making the decisions about the foundation are the people closest to the issues. This influences how the foundation is run, the grants process, and grants made to better support the community.

A Spanish speaking trustee can better communicate and understand programs and organizations run by and serving Spanish speaking people. Not just from a language perspective, but also from the lived experience of having English as a second language, or being an immigrant.

The trustees that are close to the communities where we make grants can better understand the potential impact of a program, and more importantly, the unintended consequences.

Valentine was looking into a potential mission aligned investment in a community trust. One of our trustees lives in the neighborhood, and is close to community organizations that serve drug users and sex workers. She was concerned about gentrification, and forcing that population out to another poorer part of the city.

This trustee met with the planners of the community trust, and is in talks with them about protecting these vulnerable populations, while still improving affordable housing, and helping small business owners in the community. Adding this layer of thinking to the community trusts’ planning would not have happened if our board were still all White suburban women. This dialogue will make our potential investment and the community more inclusive and stronger.

Deeper ties to community leaders

Diverse trustees have better access to and relationships with diverse community leaders who know how to best address pressing issues. When the Valentine Foundation supports organizations run by community leaders, they’re more effective than programs designed by those on the outside, who may not fully understand the problems or solutions.

Valentine has a grantee who works with women just getting out of prison. The founder of the program was in prison at one time, and she knows the pitfalls and hardships of the journey home. We were introduced to the program by a trustee of color who knew the founder and effectiveness of the program. Valentine might never have known about this program were it not for the direct connection to one of our trustees.

Over the past 35 years, Valentine Foundation has had White, Black and Brown trustees of varied sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, and some that learned English as a second language. Their insights, passions and perspectives allow us to evolve and grow, and hopefully direct our resources and grants in the best way possible. We are committed to continue seeking a diverse group of women to help guide our work and create social change for women and girls.


Alexandra Frazier has served as Executive Director of the Valentine Foundation for over 30 years.

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