Same-sex spouses, life partners, adopted children, second marriages, religious conservatives, political liberals. Today’s families are increasingly diverse and families with foundations are no exception. The changing nature of your family may be creating challenges to harmonious and effective governance. Fortunately, the experience of other foundations is a laboratory of solutions.
If you attended the Council on Foundations Family Philanthropy Conference last week in Miami, you might agree. Talking about other foundations’ issues engages us in substantive conversation without emotional attachment. We are free to be creative, conciliatory, and open.
We were thrilled with the lively participation in the workshop I facilitated with Jason Born of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Dozens of family members, trustees, and professionals heard the experiences of four foundations struggling with diverse viewpoints on their boards. Though the solutions offered for each case study were tailored to the unique circumstances, these themes emerged as essential to productive board work on potentially divisive issues:
1. Conversation leads to progress. Diverse views, though challenging, present an opportunity to think, reflect, learn, and, perhaps improve your governance and process.
2. Your approach to decision making matters. Choose an approach that best suits your family. Adapt different approaches in different circumstances.
3. Leadership is essential. Appoint a good leader and provide training as needed.
4. Go back to basics for guidance. Refer to founding documents, donor legacy, mission, and bylaws.
5. Take your time. Listen. Consider. Take a break. Choose to decide over several meetings if needed.
6. Think outside the board. Seek outside expertise when necessary, such as content experts, neutral facilitators, community advisers, or others as appropriate.
Reflecting on our Miami workshop, I remember so many of the comments made by the participants, and address this last thought to them: You have learned through the examples of other foundations and adapted the best practices and a range of solutions to your particular experience. You might not have known it, but you are the experts.
Mary Phillips is president of GMA Foundations.