Summary: Are family dynamics getting in the way of board work? Do long-standing patterns of interaction hinder decision-making? Do you wish to avoid potential difficulties in the future if your family foundation is adding new members to its board?

At a recent workshop conducted by Mary Phillips, president of GMA Foundations, these questions were addressed, and in this client advisory, we offer the following advice on how to achieve good communication and healthy interaction – the keys to successful governance. We suggest proactive solutions that inspire purposeful interaction at board meetings and discuss interventions that can be applied in problem situations.

Is there a shared vision?

Clearly establishing a shared vision generates personal commitment to the work of the foundation. Instituting practices through written policies and procedures will clearly describe expected behaviors and roles. Job descriptions, for example, contribute to mutual understanding and accountability in matters ranging from attendance at meetings and site visits to authority for decisions affecting the foundation’s resources.

Some families adopt a Code of Conduct that states values, behaviors and expectations of those involved with the foundation. In addition, all directors should be familiar with the foundation’s by-laws. These documents function as “rules of the road” for the foundation.

Are meetings productive?

Most of the key interactions determining family foundation effectiveness take place at board meetings. Construct them in ways that build strong working relationships. First consider their timing and location. Avoid hours when people are likely to be tired or dates such as holidays, when conflicting demands might cause stress. Finally, if the board meeting is held around the family dinner table or in the living room, where everyone tends to sit in the same seat as they do during family dinners or socializing, it may be difficult for family members to relate to each other as colleagues, rather than father and son or sister and brother.

Effective leadership and facilitation is critical in managing meetings, achieving goals, and summarizing take-aways and next steps. Leadership need not reside in one person, such as the chair, but can rotate throughout the meeting or the year. However, someone should take responsibility for ensuring that policies, such as the code of conduct, are adhered to and that the meeting goals are being met. In addition, the leader should set aside time early on to ensure that each board member speaks and that a congenial tone is established. Meeting participants should commit to practice personal responsibility to be prepared, to arrive on time, to participate in discussion, to consider other viewpoints and to be willing to compromise.

How do you make decisions?

Compromise is one of several possible approaches to getting to yes or no. Some foundations create committees to gather information and opinions and make recommendations to the board. Requiring a super majority or instituting other clear voting rules are other ways to arrive at conclusions that are accepted as legitimate. Applying different decision-making styles to different types of decisions enhances flexibility and sensitivity.

Most family foundations tend to operate by reaching consensus and continue discussion until everyone either agrees or at least agrees to commit to the decision. Cordial disagreement can be healthy. If conflict occurs and is not addressed, however, board members may limit their involvement in the foundation’s work, disengage or develop counter-productive and inappropriate ways of imposing their views.

While conflict affecting the foundation may stem from a personal situation or perception, resolving conflict is the responsibility of the full board. Sometimes conflicts can be disaggregated into manageable issues and can be resolved one step at a time. Conflict is best addressed by focusing on the topic at hand and not on the personalities involved, by recognizing “hot buttons” and controlling responses to them and by stepping away from emotionally charged situations and resuming discussion when all participants can think rationally.

Good communication skills including active listening, acknowledging all points of view and maintaining a positive attitude that a solution is possible will help with resolution. Identify the necessary decision, focus on areas of agreement and pledge to respect and resolve areas of disagreement. Board members should recognize that as directors of the foundation they serve a public trust, and it is incumbent upon them to function effectively.

Do you need to change the status quo?

The best intentions and highest level of preparation may not lead to successful interaction in all family foundations. The board may need to

intervene by instituting a more workable governance approach, such as setting board terms and rotating officers or changing the size of the board. Sometimes a change in the mission or grantmaking approach can improve interaction and connection. Discretionary giving programs can allow the board to focus more narrowly on one area of impact while allowing trustees the opportunity to pursue independent funding interests.

A neutral facilitator or outside content expert will usually be helpful in building better board patterns or leading the board through difficult

decisions. Some mediators and therapists specialize in family business and family foundations and can be the best solution in helping the family to work through problematic issues. When all else fails, dissolving or dividing the foundation may be the best course of action if negative relations within the foundation are weakening family ties and creating insurmountable obstacles to implementing its philanthropic goals.

It is important to remember that you are not walking the path alone. It is a rare family that does not face difficulties along the way. Guidance is available in the form of written resources, peers who have walked the path before you, conference workshops and consultants who have worked with dozens of family foundations.

We thank the sponsors of the family foundation communication workshop: Association of Small Foundations and Associated Grant Makers. For a consultation on family communication, please contact Mary Phillips, 617-391-3090.

Download:  Tools for Improving Interaction at Family Foundation Meetings