How to choose board members who will honor donor intent

Your board members will make or break your donor intent. It’s that simple. No matter your mission, timeframe, or giving vehicle, the people you select to assist or shepherd your giving—particularly after your death—will have the greatest impact on fidelity to your mission.

This article will guide you through the crucial decision of choosing your first board. This is the most important decision you will make as a philanthropist concerned about your intent. Your original board members will most likely work directly with you, learning not only what you want to accomplish, but also why and how. They will evaluate and name future trustees. Choose the right people, and you’ll be well-positioned to see your mission properly executed. Choose the wrong people, and nothing will safeguard your intentions.

“If you’ve got the wrong people, no structure, no mission statement can hold them to donor intent,” says Kim Dennis of the Searle Freedom Trust. “You can put things in writing very clearly,” echoes Donn Weinberg, a former trustee of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, “but if you pick the wrong people, and they are motivated by their own ideologies and proclivities, then they’ll start to change the meaning of words. If the early trustees are not honoring donor intent, the later ones will never do it.”

Six wise practices for choosing board members

Choosing good board members takes time, and there are no shortcuts. It’s a matter of cultivation and discernment—more art than science. Here are six approaches for selecting the best board members for your philanthropy:

1. Emphasize character qualities rather than professional credentials

Put integrity, humility, and honesty high on your list of qualifications for board members—placing more emphasis on them than professional qualifications. Candidates must be humble enough to subordinate their interests and enthusiasms to the mission you set for them. They must be disciplined enough to constantly revisit and re-engage your vision. And they must be brave enough to take managerial, fiduciary, or legal steps to protect your intent when they feel it has been compromised.

Remember, most people can be taught the mechanics of board service relatively quickly. The willingness to subordinate one’s own desires in the service of another is a matter of character, one often developed over a lifetime.

2. Work directly with your trustees

DonorsTrust President Lawson Bader advises givers to find people they trust in their own generation—and, crucially, in a younger generation, too. “If you can actually bring people in at multiple generational levels, all of whom know you personally, that’s an important piece,” he says.

Watching your trustees perform on the job is advisable. When a first generation of trustees works directly with a donor, they typically follow his or her intent more judiciously. The give-and-take of grantmaking will help you determine whether they are a strong fit as successor trustees. They will also benefit from working with you during your lifetime. As you express your giving preferences and put your mission into action, they will learn precisely how your grantmaking fulfills your goals.

As Carl Helstrom, vice president for programs of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, puts it, “The best donor-intent stories are those where the donor, him or herself, was deeply involved in crafting and developing not just the idea, but the actual grantmaking portfolio with trustees.”

3. Ask tough questions and don’t accept “yes” or “no” as an answer

Finding strong candidates for your board means getting to know them, discussing over a long period of time their thinking (especially on the nature of philanthropy), and posing questions that will uncover areas of agreement and disagreement. Asking tough questions now may preserve the intent of your foundation years in the future.

A strong example comes from the orange groves of central Florida. Dr. Phillips Charities and Dr. Phillips Inc. have granted close to $200 million to various community causes in Orange and Osceola counties, and in support of free enterprise and property rights across the U.S. The first president of the foundation, Jim Hinson, was a trusted business associate who worked directly with the original wealth creator, Dr. Philip Phillips, and his son Howard from 1957 onward. Hinson served as president of Dr. Phillips Charities from 1985 to 2008 and as board chairman from 1990 to 2015.

“When he on-boarded new board members, Hinson really drilled down to some of their philosophies to determine if they had some ulterior motives, and to make sure they understood what the Dr. Phillips family donor intent was. Only after he had that buy-in was he comfortable bringing somebody on the board,” says Kenneth Robinson, the current president of Dr. Phillips Charities.

4. Don’t automatically pick trustees based on business and family ties

Selecting the initial members for your board is tricky business. It requires far more due diligence than picking your lawyer, golf buddy, or son-in-law. Donors often choose board members based on shared business activities or bloodlines, but both in isolation can lead to disaster. Shared experience and family ties have their place in your decision, but they shouldn’t be your primary consideration.

An “expert” with no interest in preserving donor intent might well convince other board members to take a direction in, say, education reform that is completely counter to your wishes. And family members often do the same. “You need to bring them on because their philosophical DNA is in concert with yours, not necessarily the blood DNA,” cautions Steve Moore, CEO of the Murdock Charitable Trust.

Because they will set the culture of your philanthropy for years to come, your first board must comprise people who truly understand that they are stewards of your mission. As Robert Bork noted in 1992, fidelity to donor intent demands “self-discipline in the service of the founder’s, rather than one’s own, moral purpose.”

5. Choose the right temperaments for your board

There are certain types of board members that donors should probably avoid. The ideal board member should be neither too aggressive nor too passive. An overly aggressive board member can lead to unnecessary and counterproductive friction. A too-passive board member may not be willing to stand on principle on important questions of donor intent. A too-forceful personality may end up dominating the board, discouraging others from sharing their opinions and cutting you off from valuable advice. Individuals who see board service as an opportunity to bolster personal prestige are not likely to place the foundation’s—or donor’s—interests above their own.

6. Help your trustees become experts on you

Honoring donor intent doesn’t mean that a board can’t respond to new situations or opportunities. That is one enormous benefit of populating the first board with people the donor trusted and who struggled alongside him or her to shape the foundation’s grantmaking strategy. Trustees familiar with how he or she approached problems and analyzed potential solutions will be better able to navigate unexpected challenges and opportunities.  

The founder of the Denver-based Daniels Fund did not include veterans’ causes in his mission, but was a veteran himself and admired the contributions our armed services made in preserving the nation’s freedoms. “Over the years,” explains former president Linda Childears, “we’ve had many opportunities to fund veterans” causes, and we as board members have looked at each other and said, ‘We know Bill would love this.’” The trustees chose to help veterans within the context the donor had given them, and fund veteran-focused relief in areas that Daniels had specified: helping homeless, disadvantaged, and substance-abusing populations that overlap with veteran populations.

Eventually, board members must become experts on their wealth creator. “You have to be a student of the donor,” Atlantic Philanthropies President Christopher Oechsli told Philanthropy magazine in 2014. “The donor’s intent consists of a range of elements—what motivated him, why did he want to give, what are the approaches, what are the values?”

A final word on choosing board members

All recommendations for board policies come with a caveat: your internal and external donor-intent protections shouldn’t be so severe as to stifle engagement from your board members. Trustees must have a sense of what their title suggests—that you have some faith in their judgment. Board members who do not believe their contributions are valued may not invest time on your board, offer much effort or imagination, or feel true allegiance to your mission.

Your goal should be to create policies that inspire and guide board members more than question their integrity or abilities. As Paul Rhoads, president of the Grover Hermann Foundation, advises, “One wants to encourage future trustees and establish an esprit de corps that develops loyalty to the foundation’s mission.”

That very loyalty suggests that you give serious consideration to one critical area of flexibility—that of the foundation’s lifespan. If you have set up your foundation in perpetuity, you may want to give your trustees the authority to sunset it at some point in the future. The trustees of both the Avi Chai and Earhart foundations did just that rather than extend their existence beyond the lives of board members who had known their donors personally. Board members who truly understand the importance of honoring donor intent will be loath to risk violation in the future and will welcome the opportunity to fulfill their obligation as the stewards of your legacy.