Ready to Add Non-Family Board Members?


In philanthropy we hear a clarion call to increase the diversity of foundation boards. As a result, we see more family foundations talking about how their boards might better reflect the communities they support. Others are weighing the advantages of adding non-family board members who bring expertise in a focus area, or new energy and insight during generational transitions.

Your foundation may be considering how to add members who represent a diversity of gender, race, or class, or an outside source of knowledge and insight. Before taking action, assess your board’s readiness to work with new types of members on the family board.

Facing the challenge of broadening participation beyond family

We salute all of the board members of family foundations who have bravely raised the bold idea of bringing in community board members. Most governing boards are conservative by nature and design. This serves them well but makes proposing change hard.

To navigate organizational change, the family board must first address the dynamics of people’s emotions and the power of tradition. In some families, the idea of discussing money with outsiders is taboo. Bringing in board members who are not family members asks a family to reconsider its norms of privacy and control.

Changing familiar habits and traditions, and welcoming non-family into the fold, requires a degree of sacrifice and risk-taking. In return, there is an improved outcome in sight. Adding community or expert members could increase the family foundation’s effectiveness.

Rethinking tradition and power

Family foundations are deeply personal organizations rooted in a web of complex identities, relationships, and treasured historical legacies. Their governance structures are shaped over time by family dynamics. Intellectually willing to change, board members must consider how they will face uncertainty, let go of some power, and embrace difference. These are shifts that would challenge the nimblest of organizations.

Readiness is essential. Board members need time to explore and express their expectations. An outside consultant experienced with family boards can help facilitate a constructive process.

Identifying the right time to welcome non-family

Change sometimes begins with a bold suggestion from a board member. More often, the board identifies that it has reached a critical moment in the family foundation life cycle when a well-planned transition is important. This is a good time to weigh the benefits of a strategic change.

Family boards often find the opportunity for adding non-family members, and for increased effectiveness, in these moments:

Geographic dispersion of the family. A family foundation focused on the donors’ home community feels increasingly detached as the next generation members all reside elsewhere. The board is lacking intimate familiarity with the place and its residents, and considers adding members from that community.

Increased demands on successors. Successors in family giving are likely to be young adults, busy building careers and families, who may be interested in only limited involvement. Continuity and strength in family giving may depend on adding non-family members.

Changing board perspectives. As society, the economy, and families change, so do foundation board members’ perspectives. Your board demonstrates a growing openness to new approaches. Adding members with certain lived experiences could heighten the board’s interest in meeting and learning, and lead to stronger grants.

Recognizing the benefits of adding new and diverse members

Bringing new voices to the table asks people to agree that they will gain more than they lose, that the benefits outweigh the fear and uncertainty about change. Readiness comes from resolving this tension. What are the benefits?

Research consistently shows that diverse governance increases innovation, reduces bias, and expands vital social networks in organizations. Yet the value of diversity in board governance remains a contentious topic.

Outside members often fill gaps in technical, scientific, or field expertise related to the foundation’s mission. And, adding more than one non-family member could add additional talent or perspective and also improve the resulting new power dynamic.

Joined by new and diverse members, the family board is changed but reinvigorated. The openness that led to the board’s acceptance of disruption also promises agility, knowledge, and a new self-awareness.

What does readiness for new members look like?

Governing boards rarely make speedy decisions about recruiting new members. Yet, they should take action when they see the time is right. Although readiness to add non-family members looks different in every family, we see a board that is open to the idea when we witness several of these attributes:

  • A culture of trust and openness that helps people find common ground
  • Enthusiasm about the opportunity to advance the mission of the foundation
  • Openness to candidly assess the foundation’s strengths and weaknesses
  • A collective understanding of the group’s values and belief systems
  • An awareness of the patience and preparation needed to bring on new board members.

Envisioning the new family foundation board

When judging readiness for change, the family board should consider whether its members can visualize the foundation as an entity separate from the family. A neutral facilitator experienced with guiding family boards can prompt members to identify organizational goals for growth and impact. The board can then determine the type of new voices essential to reaching those goals, and find the approach that achieves an ideal balance between family inclusion and community involvement.

Prentice Zinn, a senior consultant at GMA, helps foundation boards envision and develop sound grantmaking and governance practices. Contact

Consider also:

What do we call our non-family board members? from the National Center for Family Philanthropy

Adding non-family board members: Q&A with Penelope McPhee of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. National Center for Family Philanthropy. February 2, 2016

Diversifying Perspectives and Sharing Power at a Family Foundation. Ruth Cummings and Sharon Alpert.  Stanford Social Innovation Review. October 22, 2018

Diversity as a Family Affair. Cole Wilbur. National Center for Family Philanthropy. March 23, 2014.