Solving society’s problems isn’t always the biggest issue new foundation leaders face. In some cases, it’s changing a foundation’s culture so it can tackle the challenge ahead, said speakers gathered at the Council on Foundations annual conference Sunday in Los Angeles.
As one veteran told Kevin Walker to recognize when he took over as head of the Northwest Area Foundation, no matter how smart a new strategy a foundation chief wants to put in place, he or she must realize “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Sandra Hernández, chief executive of the San Francisco Foundation, said the best way to get to know an organization’s culture is to listen to employees. Walk around the organization and talk to people. Eat in the kitchen once in a while, she suggests, and get to work understanding the ways a new chief executive’s lack of knowledge could harm the organization.
For Ms. Hernández, who came to her post some years ago with no knowledge of investment management or of the foundation’s many donors, that meant finding a mentor who could teach her about the intricacies of endowments and making sure she learned as much as she could about each one of the foundation’s biggest donors.
Once a new leader has spent some time running a foundation, it is important to make sure that the board conducts a review of the leader’s work, said Carol Larson, head of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. She has had such a review each time she has taken a new role at the foundation, she says, and she considers it a kind of “tune-up” for a chief executive.
“Done the right way,” said Ms. Larson, “reviews can be really helpful and a good check on how you’re doing and how what you are doing is being perceived.”
She also suggested creating a peer support group of leaders from other organizations as a way to conduct regular discussions about topics no one else can understand.
However, she said, just as important is finding a “buddy” in the foundation, someone a leader can count on to speak the truth even when it is critical and who can give honest feedback. “Identify that person and cultivate a relationship of candidness and trust,” she said.
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