March 29, 2018
From the President

Foundation Boards: The Question of Diversity

By Hilary Pearson

BoardSource, the US consulting and research organization on not-for-profit governance, conducted a study in 2017 on board governance practices, Leading With Intent. This study was focused broadly on US nonprofit boards, but there were 141 foundations within the sample. One-hundred eleven (111) foundation chief executives and 30 foundation board chairs responded to the survey and completed an additional foundation-customized question set. With support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Ford Foundation, a supplementary report on foundation governance practices is forthcoming from BoardSource.

There is much fascinating information within the 2017 survey report, which is freely available. Board Source identifies its three key findings as:

  • When it comes to the board’s perceived impact on foundation performance, three board characteristics may matter most: 1) providing guidance and support to the chief executive, 2) the board’s understanding of its roles and responsibilities, and 3) the extent to which the board is adaptable in the face of changes in the environment.
  • Foundation boards that assess their own performance regularly report stronger board performance, but too few foundation boards have adopted this recommended practice.
  • Foundation boards lack racial and ethnic diversity in profound ways — and current recruitment practices demonstrate that is unlikely to change.

On the specific subject of foundation board diversity, Phil Buchanan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy commented in a recent blog post that “ensuring regular turnover of current board members and then prioritizing diversity in the recruitment of new ones is the only path forward for foundation boards if they are to make the kind of dramatic progress on diversity that is so desperately needed.” But BoardSource reports that changing board recruitment practices is not among the top priorities of most of the respondents.

During our Montreal symposium last October, PFC hosted a panel on the topic of how foundation boards can change their practices to bring in diverse perspectives more effectively, especially the perspectives from their beneficiaries. A lively conversation with former and current directors of the Laidlaw Foundation Board and the Lucie et André Chagnon Foundation revealed the different ways in which those two private foundation boards have worked to bring perspectives from the community directly on to their boards and also how they have created structures to help them consult with their grantees and with the larger community.

PFC intends to do more research and survey work on the important topic of foundation governance, including diversity, recruitment and listening practices, over the course of 2018. We hope to bring this information to the foundation community with another session at our upcoming conference in Toronto in October. It will be interesting to see in what ways the Canadian foundation sector compares to the findings of BoardSource.   

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