The stronger foundation board: leadership and culture are everything

23 November 2021

In mid-November 2021, more than 40 foundation chairs of trustees came together for ACF’s annual evening for member chairs. This year’s event considered the concept of leadership. A panel of recently appointed chairs reflected on their own approach to leadership in the last year and what they had learned. In this blog following the event, ACF’s own chair, Janet Morrison OBE, reflects on these issues and the role of the chair in setting and embodying the charity’s culture. 

ACF’s Stronger Foundations programme sets out some key principles – the pillars of practice – for chairs and trustees – and provides inspiration for anyone reflecting on what good governance looks like in a philanthropic setting. Of course, governance embodies principles of accountability and responsibility but this can distance us from the real fundamental issue for boards: leadership and values. 

The first pillar says that a stronger foundation has a deep understanding of its mission, vision and values.  These are articulated through their strategy – setting our priorities, plans and the outcomes they seek to achieve. However, I’m a firm believer in the adage that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, and that strategies set out on paper are meaningless if they are not accompanied by an enabling culture, led from the top, by the board.  Organisational values can’t be delegated to the CEO and the executive, they need to be embodied in all of the Board’s behaviours.  

So if you as trustees expect your CEO to be creative, positive, empowering, diplomatic and respectful then that’s how the trustees need to conduct themselves in all their actions.  If Trust staff feel that attending the board is like appearing before the Spanish Inquisition, then you’ve probably got your values wrong as a chair and trustees.  Authentic leadership lives and breathes their organisational values.  

In my view, a stronger foundation has a board that sets the tone for the whole organisation and all its relationships. This should be expressed as a spirit of shared endeavour with the CEO/director and their team. Grandness, ego and importance have no place in leadership or governance. 

Of course you can’t speak about leadership without considering the impact of power. I’ve always been a firm believer that the higher up you progress in an organisation the lighter your touch should be. A chief executive will aspire to create a robust senior team that can debate and challenge policies and proposals in a spirit of openness and collegiality. But when more junior members of staff join the meeting a good senior team will change its tone of voice and ensure that they are constructive and supportive – not least as the best way to get the most out of their colleague’s contribution.  The same goes for a chair and trustees when they engage with the executive and staff – whether at board meetings or in informal interactions. A trustee should model the behaviour, style and tone they wish to see from their staff colleagues.

Having an awareness of our power is particularly important because of our status as foundations.  Foundations necessarily exist because of privilege and inequality.  Private money put to public purpose.  Compared with many other bodies in the public sphere, foundations enjoy considerable freedom and independence. So it’s especially important that we consider our transparency and accountability and how we use our power wisely with the communities and causes we serve. There’s a huge danger when blessed with a bulging cheque book that foundation leaders can suffer from the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ – since those who seek our support will no doubt bend over backwards to appreciate our every word. 

A stronger foundation is one which treads lightly, acts with humility and recognises the expertise and commitment of the communities they seek to support.  Having money to give away does not make us any wiser or more purposeful than anyone else – particularly those working on the ground with disadvantaged and discriminated against communities.  Our use of power needs to add value, recognise knowledge, skills and talents, make connections, convene learning and giveback.

A stronger foundation board spends its time in strategic discussions. In larger foundations there is a risk that trustees, recruited for their specific knowledge and skills, spend more time in funding committees than they do in board meetings. This can mean that they function more as representatives of their committee at board meetings rather than as champions of the foundation’s strategic purposes and intent in committee business. A stronger foundation’s board spends serious time on the big issues – for instance on intentional investment strategy, on funding principles and practice, on understanding internal capabilities and capacity, on learning, feedback and reflection.  

A stronger foundation board also spends time understanding the external environment and how it needs to adapt and respond to the changing world. This has been more true than ever over the past year as many foundations have been responding to the impact of the pandemic. Trustees can use these discussions to identify trends and transferable learning, make connections and generate leads, learning and spot potential collaborations and partnerships to enhance impact. 

It is to be welcomed that many foundations have been giving more energy and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) recently. A stronger foundation board makes a public commitment to DEI, considers what it means in terms of gaps in their knowledge, skills and reach, explores the institutional and structural barriers that are preventing access to communities and causes and how to overcome them. A stronger foundation has a diverse board and staff team bringing greater depth of skills and knowledge to its decision-making.  It's worth noting however that more diversity may make easy consensus decision-making more elusive, so a stronger foundation chair will need to keep developing their leadership muscles to respond to new dynamics and more varied skills and experience. This may require of more time and energy to build trusted and confident board relationships.  

A stronger foundation chair therefore understands the strengths and weaknesses, skills and styles of their trustee board and staff, and works hard to orchestrate their talents to maximise the quality of decision making. A skilful board is committed to its own learning and development. And of course, to do that – a stronger chair also needs a good understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and commitment to learning and self-reflection. 

Happily, the stronger foundations programme is a living and dynamic tool which will continue to accompany foundations on their learning journeys. Good governance and strong board leadership is a process not a destination. The rewards are learning and new inspirations and better outcomes. 

As part of our Stronger Foundations initiative, ACF produced a short guide: ‘10 pillars of stronger practice for foundation chairs’, available here