Beyond Governance: Training Foundation Board Members for Leadership - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Beyond Governance: Training Foundation Board Members for Leadership

This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Taxation of Exempts, a Thomson Reuters journal.

Photo by fauxels from Pexels

In the philanthropy and nonprofit field, training and development for boards of directors has traditionally focused on basic, fundamental roles and responsibilities. Common topics include: the duties of board members; legal compliance; providing strategic direction; hiring and evaluating staff leadership; and running efficient and effective meetings.

Until recently, Exponent Philanthropy, a national association that serves grantmaking foundations with few or no staff, centered trainings on these fundamental skills and roles. Our members represent over 10,000 foundation board members across the nation, but we’ve adopted a new approach. So, what compelled this change?

Over the past 12 years, Exponent observed how a number of our members across the country achieve impact far beyond the size of their assets and staff. Most Exponent members focus their philanthropy locally, and many leverage non-dollar assets, such as a deep knowledge of their communities, relationships with local leaders and convening power.

We also learned that the boards of these creative, impactful foundations engage in activities and roles that extend far beyond the scope of what we assumed. In addition to overseeing the compliance and operations of their foundations, these boards engage with staff and family members to exert leadership and community capacity building.

In 2011, we launched an intentional, long-term initiative to discover how small foundations make an outsized impact. By interviewing dozens of these members and following their work over time, we saw a clear pattern emerge in the mindsets and practices of these high-impact funders, or what we call catalysts.

Catalytic funders work to meet immediate needs, as well as trying to solve the systemic problems facing the communities they serve. They employ activities and roles that go beyond traditional grantmaking such as convening, commissioning research, capacity building, advocacy and mobilizing community members.

Key Elements of Our New Approach To Training Boards

Exponent Philanthropy developed resources and programs to empower more leanly staffed foundations to make catalytic impact. We shifted our board and governance training to incorporate catalytic principles, and we try to nurture the following leadership qualities among our members’ boards:

  • Strong, trusting relationships among board members
  • Passion and connection to an issue and the community; a feeling of ownership and responsibility
  • Inquisitiveness and a culture of constant learning, informed by listening and direct engagement with grantees and community members
  • Understanding systemic racism in America, and how it manifests in their community and the focus area the foundation has chosen
  • Vision and ambition; the desire to set sights higher and catalyze transformation, rather than accept the status quo
  • A sense of common purpose where every board member identifies with the foundation’s vision and goals, and commits to them

Foundation boards need time and a framework to develop these qualities. We encourage foundations to create a 12- to 24-month learning agenda for their boards—one that centers on direct engagement with nonprofits and other stakeholders in the community, and on equity training. We map out several ways foundations can structure these agendas, with people in different roles serving as drivers and facilitators—from board chairs to executive directors to individuals within the board, staff or family who might step up.

As foundation boards engage with grantees and develop an understanding with staff of community needs, they prepare and position their foundations for catalytic work. The foundations they serve will be able to:

1) Focus on one or two specific, well-defined issues and articulate the specific change they want to catalyze

2) Understand the ecosystem of their issue, and identify specific roles for the foundation within the larger system

3) Commit to a disciplined, focused course of action for the time required to catalyze desired outcomes—over several years, or a decade or more

We are also in the process of developing trainings for board members to engage in the community and take on roles such as educating local and state legislators on needs; serving as spokespersons and ambassadors to raise awareness of issues and elevate the work of nonprofits; and developing relationships with other foundations, community organizations and business leaders to nurture collaboration.

Why We Changed How We Train Boards

Our motivation to change comes from recognizing that:

1) Lean foundations can’t afford not to engage board members. By definition, they have just one or a handful of staff, and many have no staff. Catalytic philanthropy is intensive work that demands the participation of staff, board and family members.

2) Foundations need their boards on board. When surveying members about their priorities, “having more impact” usually appears at the top. Yet, many boards are averse to making major changes to their operations. Boards often lack knowledge and experience with philanthropic models beyond the traditional, transactional process of reviewing applications and writing checks for short-term needs. Many boards also face challenges in developing agreement and a common vision for what the foundation should accomplish. When a staff person, trustee, or family member wants to embark on catalytic work, it’s common for the individual to face strong resistance to making the required shifts.

3) Boards bring powerful assets to catalytic work. Most small foundations are place-based funders focusing on the town, city or state where the donor or family lives. Their board members (whether family or non-family) have deep connections to these places and hold relationships with local and state leaders, such as business owners, school principals, journalists, university researchers, and leaders of civic organizations, chambers of commerce, and nonprofits.

Many small foundation board members also have relationships with local and state government leaders like the mayor, city council members and state legislators. Board members can leverage these relationships to access resources for nonprofit partners, connect and convene local leaders, create partnerships with government, and build buy-in and momentum to advocate for policy change.

4) It’s the right thing to do. Leaders in all sectors of our country are being called to take action and address critical issues. This encompasses systemic racism, economic inequality, poverty and hunger, unequal access to quality health care and education, and climate change. The systemic nature of these problems impels foundation board members to move from just addressing immediate needs to also addressing the underlying structures perpetuating them.

Exponent Philanthropy provides training in both the basic roles and responsibilities of governance, as well as in catalytic philanthropy, equity and leadership. We strive to prepare the boards of small foundations to build long-term capacity and leadership in their partner organizations, engage residents in problem-solving and decision making, and strengthen communities through catalytic impact.

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About the Author

Andy Carroll advises staff, trustees, and donors of leanly staffed foundations in leadership, advocacy, and catalytic philanthropy. He works to empower more small foundations to leverage their unique position and assets to catalyze change on important issues. Andy has an MBA from the University of Michigan Business School and 30 years of experience in management, training, and program development for nonprofit organizations.


  1. Ms. Doris Ralston

    Interesting – would like more specifics on how to move the Board to be more open to change.

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