Power in Philanthropy
Power in Philanthropy
This series, presented in partnership with the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, aims to explore popular concepts in philanthropy—such as risk, capacity building, and public leadership—through the lens of power and equitable outcomes.

The ultimate power of any private foundation resides with its board of directors. One of the most important responsibilities for any board chair and chief executive, therefore, is to ensure that their board remains connected to the realities in its communities, open to new ideas, inclusive of divergent perspectives, and responsive to a changing world.

At the Barr Foundation, we are convinced our work is more effective and impactful with a large and broadly representative board. Indeed, sharing power at the governance level is imperative to advancing our mission of ensuring that everyone can reach their full potential.

Power sharing and a board’s essential roles

We see power sharing at the board level as instrumental to ensuring three essential governance functions:

  • Accountability: In philanthropy, there are few mechanisms for accountability, and no natural consequences for mediocrity or underperformance. As Tom Tierney and Joel Fleishman note in their book Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results, in philanthropy, excellence is self-imposed. Accountability for excellence, therefore, rests squarely with the board. At their best, foundation boards help shape and own a foundation’s strategy. Then they engage as constructive partners with staff and the CEO in the execution of that strategy. When boards fail in these responsibilities, complacent or even toxic organizational cultures can fester, and their relationships and reputation in the communities they aim to serve can suffer.
  • Rootedness: As they seek to address complex challenges in a context of rapid change, foundations depend on their boards for wisdom, perspective, and sense-making. Board members who bring authentic relationships, experiences, and an understanding of the communities the foundation aims to serve are more likely to help shape strategies that are responsive to real needs. Such boards also help foundations foster a spirit of partnership with the nonprofits they support. When they aren’t rooted in this way, strategies can become overly prescriptive, disconnected from real needs, and feel imposed upon—rather than responsive and connected to—communities. Rather than partners, nonprofits may feel as if they are “contractors” hired to advance a foundation’s agenda.
  • Adaptability: Foundations must set clear strategies and ensure fidelity to those strategies over the long term. At the same time, they must balance focus with the ability to learn, adapt, and evolve. Boards that consciously seek diverse perspectives can be far more adept at keeping a foundation attuned to evolving community needs. They can ask probing questions that encourage expansive thinking, challenge assumptions, and help a foundation strike this important balance.

A journey in sharing power

Founded in 1997, Barr began as a vehicle to support the personal charitable activities of its founders. Within its first few years, we became a professionally staffed family foundation governed solely by its founders. Today, we are a legacy foundation, governed by a majority of non-family members.

In each step of this evolution, we knew we didn’t have—and, indeed, would never have—a monopoly on wisdom. So we sought different ways to ensure that we benefitted from a broader set of voices, ideas, and perspectives. Initially, as we shifted from working with consultants to staffing the foundation, we expanded the breadth and depth of expertise available to us. We put a premium on hiring staff who brought not only expertise in their fields, but also extensive networks and trusting relationships within our community.

As we steadily grew in size and sophistication, we found other ways to learn from those in the field, and to share power and influence over direction-setting and decisions. One example is the Barr Fellowship, which celebrates and invests in extraordinary social sector leaders. By inviting community leaders to join the Barr Fellowship selection committee in 2015, their networks and expertise enriched our deliberations.

Our most significant power-sharing step, however, was to expand our board and to share governance with non-family members, who are now a majority of trustees. This evolution will continue as we expand the board in the years ahead, because we codified this decision, determining that Barr’s board will always have a majority of non-family members.

We also decided that the board should have broad latitude to make decisions that help the foundation best respond to future needs, including decisions about changes to focus areas, geographic expansion, and even whether or not the foundation should exist in perpetuity.

Three lessons in sharing power

Each step in this journey has helped broaden the range of perspectives and experiences shaping the foundation’s strategies and informing our decisionmaking. We believe all of this work will enable us to build and sustain a board that shares power, makes richly informed decisions, and stewards a culture of humility and excellence. Our governance efforts remain a work in progress, but here are three lessons we have learned thus far:

  1. Share power one step at a time. We sought to bring in outside perspectives and share decision-making in stages, over several years. This allowed us to experiment and learn, and when it felt like the right time to broaden the board, we had the knowledge and confidence to do so.
  2. Seize opportunities created by organizational transitions. We took advantage of our search for a new leader in 2013, for example, to ask bigger and longer-term questions about our ambitions for the organization and our plans for power-sharing as it related to mission, effectiveness, and impact.
  3. Keep values at the center. Sharing power brings new perspectives, and a clearly expressed set of values that ensures that all decision-makers are aligned.

Foundations can share power in many different ways, but few can have such far-reaching impact as sharing decisionmaking power at the governance level. In our view, it is a mission imperative, as it helps ensure we remain accountable, rooted, and responsive to community needs. And while no single approach is right for all foundations, the question of how we share power in our boardrooms is worthy of both exploration and action.