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. Here are some tips:
• Emphasize character qualities rather than professional credentials: Put integrity, humility, and honesty high on your list of qualifications for your 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.
• Work directly with your trustees: 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.
• 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 well into the future.
• Don’t automatically pick trustees based on business and family ties: Because they will set the culture of your philanthropy for years to come, your first board must be comprised of people who truly understand that they are stewards of your mission.
• 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 foundation board service as an opportunity to bolster personal prestige are not likely to place the foundation’s—or donor’s—interests above their own.
• 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 whom 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.
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