In two recent posts, I asked if foundations should be doing more to strengthen boards and whether we expect too much from boards. More than 50 readers provided thoughtful comments, with a range of perspectives, that are well worth reading.
Much to my surprise, most readers who commented thought foundations should indeed do more to strengthen boards. A third suggested more grants to support board development. A handful requested more foundation-sponsored training for boards, and one practical soul suggested that foundation staff members roll up their sleeves and help grantees find board members.
Your comments helped overcome my initial skepticism about whether boards need more intervention from foundations. Most of you think boards need the help. And the comments from my colleagues at other foundations indicate that a growing number of grant makers agree—and are tackling the issue with vigor and creativity.
Assuming that many foundations want to do more to strengthen boards, how can we make sure their efforts don’t do more harm than good? Here are five suggestions, grounded in your comments and my own experience as a grant seeker, grant maker, and nonprofit-board nerd.
1. Raise the issue.
Foundations can send a strong message that they believe boards are important by simply asking a few questions about the board during the application process or during face-to-face meetings. This may seem rudimentary, but many grant makers don’t do so or they ask only perfunctory questions.
2. Lose the checklist.
Asking thoughtful questions about the board and governance does not mean whipping out a clipboard and running through a checklist about compliance with “best practices.”
While checklists have their place—and do demonstrate a level of due diligence—they generally fail to illuminate whether the board is actually doing a good job. Having a conflict-of-interest policy, term limits, or a governance committee doesn’t automatically produce a high-performing board.
A few probing questions tailored to the organization, its stage of development, and its most pressing challenges will yield better information than a one-size-fits-all checklist.
3. Communicate high expectations.
Foundations need to do much more than talk about boards. We should have high expectations of the boards of grantees, and we could certainly do a better job of being clear about what those expectations are. If we expect 100-percent board giving, for example, we should say so. If a weak board was a factor in turning down a funding request, we should provide that feedback—and in specific rather than general terms, if possible.
4. Consider governance when making funding decisions.
Talking with grantees about their boards helps elevate the importance of boards, and communicating high expectations helps grantees understand what the foundation is looking for.
However, if board issues go unaddressed after many conversations, or if the problems are too big, foundations may need to discontinue funding. This can be particularly difficult, since some grantees with weak boards do good work and have charismatic and persuasive staff leadership.
Foundations need to consider carefully the circumstances under which a weak board might lead to a grantee losing its funding. Foundations that profess to be committed to building strong boards while supporting organizations with weak boards that are making no effort to improve undermine their own credibility and risk creating the impression that they are only paying lip service to the need for stronger boards.
5. Strengthen our own boards.
The medicine we so freely prescribe for grantees should also improve the health of foundation boards, which have the same basic responsibilities and face many of the same challenges. It’s unreasonable to ask our grantees to do things we’re not willing to do ourselves.
These five suggestions don’t require additional resources, special grants, or foundation-designed programs or initiatives. They don’t include the idea of providing money for consultants to work with boards or for board training, though foundations with the commitment, staff expertise, and resources to train boards and pay for consultants should do so.
But these suggestions do require some expertise, and foundation staff members who regularly ask grantees about board issues—and listen carefully to their responses—will quickly increase their understanding of effective board practices.
If more foundations put these ideas into practice, would it lead to stronger boards? I think so, but I’d love to hear whether you agree.