THE BLOG
05/13/2015 05:42 pm ET Updated May 13, 2016

For Good Grantmaking, It All Comes Back to Good Governance

Before I came to Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, I spent more than five years at BoardSource, a national organization focused on improving nonprofit governance. I have to admit, at the time I fancied myself a bit of a governance expert. After all, I had written and edited publications on good governance, conducted national surveys about board practice and spoken at many events. However after taking the helm of GEO, I discovered I was a complete fraud; I was savvy on the technical aspects of governance, but a complete novice about the subtleties of how to set up and structure important conversations, how to build a culture that allows for robust exchange of ideas and how to share power and lead collectively.

I made some serious mistakes, but I learned quickly with mentorship from a series of great board chairs including Jim Canales, Janine Lee, Beth Bruner, Gregg Behr, Handy Lindsey and Albert Ruesga. Now our board culture is what the organization needs it to be: supportive, but also challenging, curious, collegial and wise.

Most CEOs have to learn very quickly how to work with a board of directors. Many may think it's their job to draw bright line distinctions between board and staff responsibilities. This frame, though touted by many "governance experts," is too black and white and ultimately serves to keep the board out of substantive conversations and decisions. It also may have the unintended consequence of leaving them ill-equipped to truly govern.

If strictly delineating board and staff responsibilities isn't the most important task, what is? I'd suggest it is this: How can we make the absolute best use of the leadership resources at our disposal to make more progress on our mission?

Some may argue that the answer will vary greatly depending on the foundation. GEO's board chair, Mae Hong (who directs the Chicago office of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors) frequently laments the "precious snowflake syndrome" or the belief that "if you've seen one foundation, you've seen one foundation." I agree with Mae that this is a cop out. It skirts the fact that there are some transcendent practices that universally apply when the work of philanthropy is done well. I suggest that the following fundamentals of good governance fit in that category.

  • Be willing to give up control. As a young executive, I received the worst possible advice. I was encouraged to line up all of my votes in advance, to make sure there are no unanticipated questions and to pre-seed board meetings so that any vote is a foregone conclusion. And we wonder why so many boards have attendance problems? It doesn't sound very interesting to come to Kabuki Theater masked as a board meeting. Boards have energy and enthusiasm they want to give, and it's up to the CEO to channel this appropriately and not try to squash it through an overly scripted board meeting. Instead, help boards to make discoveries with the staff about what the community needs and how they can make the most of the resources they bring to the table.
  • Create space for generative conversations. CEOs who are brave enough to invite their boards into conversations while they are still formative, before they have all of the answers or have even fully framed the questions, are likely to get higher value contributions from and enjoy a more authentic and robust relationship with their boards. Generative discussions allow boards to surface new ideas about how best to help grantees achieve better results.
  • Take your board on a learning journey. I don't mean charter a plane, but frame up a series of questions that make them curious about the core work of the foundation. This may prove a welcome antidote to boards asking well meaning, but under-informed questions about "what results did our dollars buy?" One of my governance mentors, Jim Canales, a former teacher and president and trustee of the Barr Foundation, talks about developing a lesson plan for his board meetings.
  • Prepare them excellently for the learning journey. The board briefing document is an art that few have mastered, but one that is fundamental to good board engagement. Some board documents are so dense and technical as to be plain in their message: "We're the experts. You clearly don't know enough to make a meaningful contribution to the discussion." Or those that fail to connect back to other conversations the board has had on the subject. Instead, create a series of conversations and experiences that build on one another so that every board member can contribute.
  • Carve out time for relationship building. Building the trust required to make a partnership soar might just be the most important ingredient to strong governance. Shared experiences, like serving meals at a homeless shelter or taking a nature walk in the middle of a board retreat, open up the space to deepen relationships and build common ground for talking about your highest hopes for the foundation and the people it serves.
  • Include people with direct knowledge and experience on the board. The people closest to the ground have keen insights and important ideas to contribute to philanthropy, yet most private foundation boards still do not include members of the community they hope to serve. Sometimes very small boards can cause very large institutional blind spots -- ones that could be offset by expanding the board to include trustees directly connected to the work. Jen Ford Reedy, president and CEO of the Bush Foundation, suggests a second dimension to this point -- she has found real value in recruiting fellow foundation CEOs to her board. CEOs can give informed advice and help other board members better understand the challenges of the job.
Setting the stage for great governance takes care and sophistication and the reward for those efforts is a significant expansion of leadership resources available to move your mission. If you want to go deeper, much of what I describe here is inspired by the book Governance as Leadership, which remains the best resource on governance I have read.