New Voices, Old Norms

Thursday, July 14, 2011

By Amy Ellsworth and Lisa Spalding

We have all seen this scenario.  A foundation board of directors has been intact for a long time. This long-standing group has accumulated a set of comfortable norms: ways of communicating, ways of operating, assumptions about how things should be done, habitual ways of seeing things, doing things.  They have become entrenched in a shared culture.

What happens when a new board member joins the group, bringing fresh eyes?

A new board member may observe any of a number of bad behaviors that have become normalized. 

Perhaps there is weak management of conflicts of interest, and priority is given to organizations with connections to board members, or members do not regularly recuse themselves from deliberations when a conflict exists. Perhaps salaries are being paid to board members out of proportion with the work required by the role. Perhaps there is inappropriate division of roles and responsibilities between board and staff.  Perhaps they see misuse of foundation funds for lavish retreats or dinners.  Perhaps there is nepotism in hiring or rudeness and side conversations at the board room table.

The list goes on.

What’s a new board member to do?

Many factors make it difficult to face these issues head-on.  The board may not understand or accept dissenting voices, or be open to new perspectives that might push them out of their comfortable but stagnant behavior.  And of course family foundations bring their own cultures and unique dynamics. In the latter, a new board member voicing dissent risks derision, exclusion, exposure to criticism and rejection. They face a recurring challenge of how to best keep the personal and professional separate.

When it’s a new staff member that comes on with a fresh perspective, other issues arise. They face the additional power dynamic between board and staff, and risk retaliation, reputation, and loss of a job.

Best practices for “new blood” in foundations are unlikely to be found in the average board manual or staff handbook. But people are succeeding at this, carefully navigating the political and social dynamics and making real improvements in foundation governance and norms.  At TPI, we believe the philanthropic community has much to learn from their experiences, and are looking to gather helpful advice and anecdotes to share with our peers.

When is it worthwhile to fight the good fight? Which fights do you choose? Which fights to you regret? How do you approach a difficult subject? How do you determine the best people to talk to?