Several themes have been on the minds of AGB’s Council of Foundation Leaders this summer and fall during the CFL meetings. Perhaps most prominent are issues centered on back-to-the-office logistics, a strategic shift toward host institutions’ student success initiatives, and the facets of foundation board development.
Back to the Office
In the last two council meetings in July and September, issues of talent management and staff morale repeatedly were raised by foundation leaders as they navigated the strange, new (pandemic) leadership experience of remote work for themselves and for their operations and development staffs. A majority of CEOs reported that by the end of summer there was now some staff time spent back in the foundation offices, but everyone has had some exposure to remote work over the last 18 months. And for most foundations, board meetings have also become virtual or hybrid events. The open question is how much of this operational change will become a permanent feature of the foundation work experience.
Initially, the greatest challenge in adapting may have been for fundraising staff, especially those major and principal gift fundraisers for whom in-person visits and asks had long been the dominant mode of gift solicitation. Finding, retaining, and developing the skills of these high-performance fundraisers (i.e., talent management) has long been a matter of great importance to foundation and advancement leaders, but the shift in the fundraising mode toward virtual visits upset for a time the rhythm of even the most talented of these fundraisers. Ironically, foundations with the right mix of technology to make remote work successful and policies that promoted more work flexibility for staff reported that the adaption worked out well over time. Some even reported unexpected benefits to the bottom line as visits transitioned from in-person to virtual, driving down the typical travel expenses and time lags associated with the prepandemic model without any significant effect on closing gifts. Retaining talent, however, got even tougher for those foundations without the optimal mix of technologies and policies to adapt, however, and thereby retain their most productive fundraisers.
Several sessions at the forthcoming 2022 Foundation Leadership Forum in January will address these points in greater detail. Look for the sessions “Advancement in a New Era: Reinvented Playbook for Success,” “Let’s Get Unstuck: Transforming Donor Engagement,” and “Donor Experience Programs: Results from Increasing Managed Prospects by 500%” for insights into new hybrid and digital modes of fundraising, and “We’ve Got Talent: How to Build and Keep Great Staff” for guidance on how to attract, develop, and retain top talent no matter the size or structure of your foundation.
Another widespread adaptation is occurring at the strategic level, as many foundations are pivoting away from capital project fundraising toward alignment with the emerging priorities of many host institutions regarding student support and success initiatives. The pandemic highlighted the serious, immediate financial needs of many students. And the coming demographic shift in incoming student cohorts will feature more first-generation students and students of color. Equity in student success goals and the premium on retaining admitted students is fueling a greater emphasis on student success and support initiatives, and foundations are being asked to help fund these changing institutional priorities. A further challenge for foundations stemming from this pivot is motivating alumni and donors to embrace these emerging student success priorities over the more traditional capital campaign appeals of the past.
As the characteristics of students are changing, so must foundation boards be more intentional about changing their board membership to reflect this societal shift toward greater diversity of people, perspectives, and experiences to better lead the innovative foundations of the future. Foundation leaders also want to broaden the skill mix of board members and recognize that their interests may go beyond their individual skill profiles, as they build a board that reflects the student and regional populations the host institution serves.
Foundation leaders are also interested in other ways to build a stronger board. Board chairs, for instance, can have a huge impact on board culture through scheduling periodic board assessments and one-on-one meetings with each individual board member, and by taking positive actions to police the board itself to avoid nuisance or disruptive behaviors. The Principles of Trusteeship is a good place to start for establishing a behavioral and attitudinal model for individual board membership. Foundation executives can help, too, by the intentional planning of board retreats, formal and informal board development activities, and by suggesting periodic assessments to focus the board on strategic priorities and high-profile initiatives.
Look for the sessions “Advancing Equity: One Board’s Journey of Learning, Alignment and Action,” “A Foundation CEO’s Guide to Effective Board Governance,” and “The Future of Foundation Board Development” at the 2022 Foundation Leadership Forum for more exploration of these themes.
Doug Goldenberg-Hart is AGB’s director of publications.
With thanks to AGB Sustaining Partner Commonfund for their support of this council.
- The Key Endowment Questions for Challenging Times, an AGB podcast sponsored by Commonfund
- Board Assessment Tool for Institutionally Related Foundations
- The New Realities for Public Higher Education Foundations, an AGB book