How 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. Here is some guidance: 

  • Seek the same qualities of character 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 careful process of cultivating them—ought to guide your path in choosing future generations of the board. 
  • 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.
  • 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 leave the board at about the same time. Imagine what would happen if there was a sudden and complete turnover of long-time board members 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.
  • 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: In his will, Murdock established a broad mission statement for his giving—to nurture and enrich the educational, social, and spiritual life of individuals, families, and communities. That statement was wide enough to pose interpretation challenges for future trustees. After the Murdock Charitable Trust was officially established in 1975, the first executive action of the trustees 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 trustees 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 more than a billion dollars to arts and culture, education, health and human services, and science research. 

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Four tips to plan for board succession