Four tips to plan for board succession

It’s one thing to pick board members you know and trust while you’re living. It’s another to plan successfully for board succession after you’ve passed. Donor-intent violations often occur during these moments, when founding trustees pass their authority to the next generation. Particularly if you intend your foundation to operate in perpetuity, it is crucial to define the process of choosing successor trustees.

Board succession should unfold according to a predetermined plan, one that you have carefully considered with your original board members. The sudden loss of a key individual should not cause a crisis. Four steps you can take to smooth the process is to seek the same caliber of individuals as are on your original board, write down your plans, create age diversity among your trustees, and get your original board right the first time. Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

1. Seek the same character qualities in future board members

The same qualities of character and commitment to donor intent that you sought in your first-generation board members—and your same careful process of cultivating them—ought to guide you in choosing future generations of the board.

2. Put your plan on paper

Discussing this process with your founding board members and committing to paper the specific qualifications for future leadership is vitally important in transmitting your intentions. “Bill [Daniels] said, ‘Here’s a list of buddies that you ought to call on when you need to replace directors.’ I think it would have been very helpful if he had said, ‘When you look for future directors, look for these qualities,’ instead of saying, ‘Look for these people,’” says Linda Childears, former president of the Daniels Fund.

3. Create age diversity on your board

If you establish a foundation in perpetuity or set a sunset date several decades after your death, keep in mind the importance of age diversity on your original board. If the men and women whom you appoint in your lifetime as board members are all of a similar age, they may all leave the board at about the same time. Imagine what would happen if a complete turnover of long-time board members suddenly took place and the next board included no one who had worked directly with you. To prevent jeopardizing your intent, stagger the ages of your first board members and discuss with them the importance of continuing that practice.

4. Get your original board right the first time

The story of the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust underscores the importance of getting your first board right from the start. Jack Murdock never married and had no children, yet his donor intent never veered off course. It certainly could have happened: Murdock’s will established a broad mission statement for his giving—to nurture and enrich the educational, social, and spiritual lives of individuals, families, and communities. That statement was wide enough to pose interpretation challenges for future trustees.

But after the Murdock Charitable Trust was officially established in 1975, the trustees’ first executive action was to comb through Murdock’s checkbook to see where he gave money himself. Clearer directions drawn from that practical record, and from conversations with those who knew Murdock well, empowered them to fully understand what type of philanthropy was appropriately “Murdockish.” Focused on grantmaking in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, the Murdock Charitable Trust has to date allocated nearly a billion dollars to arts and culture, education, health and human services, and science research.