Four steps to hire the right staff at your foundation

Your mission is only as strong as your people. Selecting your trustees is the first step, but even the best board won’t counterbalance a staff that’s unaligned with your mission. They are on the front lines, meeting with potential grant recipients, interacting with the community, and developing grant recommendations. Every day, staff members make decisions, large and small, that will determine whether your organization fulfills its mission and adheres to your intent.

“There is an old saying: ‘personnel is policy,’” shares Linda Childears, former president of the Daniels Fund. “What that means is it’s necessary to hire staff members who are philosophically in line with your mission and will work to achieve it. Each new staff member you hire, at any level of the organization, is a vote you are casting in favor of donor intent—or in favor of its dismantling.”

As a donor, you want to bring people on staff who will drive the effectiveness of your philanthropy. Yet you must also be alert to the ways in which staff members can easily allow their own values and agendas to drive the organization. Here are four steps to increase the likelihood of successful hires.

1. Choose the right CEO

Aside from your choice of board, picking the man or woman who will lead your foundation is the most crucial decision you will make. Donn Weinberg, former trustee of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, calls this step “the most important job” of your board. “If the CEO is the right pick, then the donor’s wishes will be observed,” he says.

Donors frequently search for CEOs with experience outside the world of foundations, choosing from the ranks of trusted friends, work colleagues, and even grantees to fill the position. “Most foundation colleagues would cringe at the thought of business experience, but I think it’s really important,” notes Childears.

No matter where your search leads you—even among friends and family—be diligent in vetting your candidate. You may know an individual’s professional credentials but not his core values, her personal attributes but not her philosophy of private philanthropy. No matter how eager you are to get your grantmaking off the ground, don’t risk hiring a CEO who is not aligned with your beliefs and goals. Remember that this will be the individual responsible for articulating your vision to others and managing the grantmaking to implement your mission. Your relationship with your CEO—like your relationship with your board—must be anchored in trust.

2. Evaluate beliefs, philosophy, and integrity for all staff members

You and your foundation’s executive should take time to understand each potential staff member’s philosophical underpinnings. Pay particular attention to program staff who will play a significant role in your grantmaking, but know your administrative staff as well. Don’t assume those individuals have little influence on office culture and practice. “You’ve got to emphasize values and passion,” says philanthropy consultant Al Mueller. “If real estate is about location, location, location, in philanthropy it’s got to be values, values, values.” 

After the Daniels Fund successfully resolved a donor-intent crisis in the early 2000s involving wayward staff members and several like-minded trustees, the foundation adopted a more careful hiring and on-boarding process for new employees. Under current policy, each proposed hire must be approved by the president, and fidelity to donor intent is one of the criteria in the ultimate decision. After hiring, new staff members must undergo an hours-long donor-intent orientation. Then they go to work in a building filled with memorabilia and mementos to Bill Daniels’ philanthropic intent and legacy.

Similarly, the Connelly Foundation hired a professional historian to create a monograph on the charitable giving of John and Josephine Connelly, and every new staff member gets a copy. “A big part of on-boarding new staff members is a deliberate education in donor intent—not just the ‘what’ but the ‘why,’ the donors’ values and how they’ve been applied over the years,” says President Tom Riley.

3. Create a culture of fidelity to donor intent

Deviations from donor intent should be addressed immediately, but your long-term goal isn’t to create a culture of fear. Rather, your goal is shared values, genuine care, and reverence for central principles. Look to build traditions and practices within your operations that create loyalty to your intentions among the people of your organization. Cultivate your staff members over time. Invest in their professional development and give them increased responsibility as they show a greater appreciation and understanding of your foundation’s mission.

4. Consider time-limiting your foundation

Sunsetting can be a simple solution to concerns about future staff composition in the absence of a living donor. One of the reasons the Jaquelin Hume Foundation has decided to sunset, for example, is to allay concerns about the direction in which successor staff might take the organization. If you choose this route, be sure to have attractive incentives in place to retain key staff up to the shutdown—in keeping with the examples of the Avi Chai and Earhart foundations.