Council of Foundation Leaders Share Lessons from the Fall

By Doug Goldenberg-Hart October 19, 2020 Blog Post
Blog Post

AGB’s Council of Foundation Leaders convened in late September to discuss current and emerging issues spanning the effects of the pandemic; financial sustainability; strategic alignment; cyber risk oversight; campus activism; and justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (JDE&I). With timely topics such as these, the level of engagement among these leaders was understandably high and the discussion lively.

We want to share the key takeaways to inspire all foundation leaders to serve as strategic partners with their foundation board members, leadership teams, and host institutions through insights that shape future board agendas and strategic discussions.

The leaders at this meeting focused their discussion on:

  • the challenges their institutions are facing during the pandemic;
  • the need for innovation to address these challenges;
  • the heightened importance of institution-foundation alignment; and
  • the urgency of addressing justice, diversity, equity, & inclusion.

Institutional Challenges and Innovation

The pandemic has created immediate, pressing financial needs for public colleges and universities. Institutional leaders have been turning to foundations and their leaders for timely support to fill the shortfalls in institutional budgets and emergency funds for students. Tim Yeats, the president of Commonfund Asset Management and head of the firm’s OCIO practice (and guest on a recent AGB podcast: The Key Endowment Questions for Challenging Times) talked with the council about balancing short-term challenges, such as asset allocation, spending, and development with longer-term ones, such as innovation, alignment, and institutional needs. These stresses make it clear that foundation leaders must recognize that present circumstances have accelerated the speed of change and elevated the necessity that foundations pivot rapidly to fill the breach. The necessity, not surprisingly, is elevating the importance of innovation from foundations, both in terms of speeding up fundraising gift cycles and finding novel ways to maintain engagement with key stakeholders.

While some foundation boards have moved to virtual-only board and committee meetings, others are still holding in-person board meetings. Those who are hosting virtual sessions have tried novel ways to create a rewarding experience for board members, using branded goods and carefully produced video to replace some of the lost personal touch from in-person meetings. For those holding in-person meetings, the concern has been executing these meetings safely while still facilitating the strategic conversations so vital to board governance.

The loss of in-person alumni and athletic events, normally an important part of the fall fundraising season, has inspired novel ways of linking students, parents, and alumni to donors via virtual meetings and videos to enrich donor-recognition efforts.

Alignment

Foundation leaders must double down on efforts to establish and maintain alignment with institutional leaders and priorities during these stressful periods. Nonetheless, with institutions looking to cut back on operating budgets to cover shortfalls, foundations are also seeing operational budget cuts as they are being asked to increase their levels of financial support for the institution. The double edge of pressure to produce more from fundraising and endowments while facing budget austerity naturally has implications for staff morale. Foundation leaders are devoting more energy to their communication efforts with institutional leaders, as well as internal and external stakeholders, to navigate this turbulence and keep staff focused to deliver on the institution’s stated priorities. Managing expectations is the immediate imperative in tending to these relationships vital to strategic alignment.

Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

There was a consensus that racial and social justice issues are occupying a larger mindshare of students, faculty, and leaders with the return of students to campus over the course of the academic year. Foundation leaders are seeking to get ahead of the curve by looking at their own board and staff composition, gift policies, and investment strategies and vendor choices. They must be focused on the flashpoints for student activism surrounding controversial donors and gifts, especially from the past legacies that are reflected in the names enshrined on campus facilities. Moreover, foundation leaders must stay in alignment with institutional priorities and initiatives for JDE&I. A key insight from this discussion was the recognition of a general shift in the current climate from external pressures to divest from certain investments and toward calls to invest in a more diverse set of funds, investment managers, and other vendors with which foundations do business.

On September 28, AGB announced its own justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative.

The Council of Foundation Leaders will meet again in December, and we will discuss these topics and more during our the upcoming Foundation Leadership Forum (January 25–27), the Board Professionals Conference (April 6–8), and the National Conference on Trusteeship (April 12–14). Registration for these virtual events is now open and we look forward to seeing you there.

Doug Goldenberg-Hart is the director of AGB publications.

AGB thanks our partner Commonfund for its support of the Council of Foundation Leaders.

 

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