Navigating Choppy Seas: A Time for Courageous Leadership

Council Insights: Council of Foundation Leaders

By George P. Watt Jr. December 7, 2023 December 9th, 2023 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

In two recent AGB blog posts, former public university presidents Carol Cartwright and Ellen-Earle Chaffee have teed up the challenges facing college and university boards, with a focus on the unprecedented challenges institutional presidents are facing (see Related Resources below), and the impact of those challenges not only on the role of the president, but also on higher education, writ large. As go our public universities, so go the institutionally related foundations that exist to support them.

With this as a backdrop, the Council of Foundation Leaders recently convened a virtual roundtable discussion with Chaffee in her role as Interim AGB President/CEO and with Mary Papazian, AGB’s Executive Vice President. Initial discussion established that the current environment (a continued decline in public confidence and trust in higher ed institutions, coupled with widespread political intrusion and influence, among other challenges) suggests that the job of higher ed presidents may be harder than it has ever been. Indeed, the situations of many, if not most, presidents of public colleges and universities have become untenable. The following discussion then focused on the question of what this means to institutionally related foundations and their boards. And further on what role—if any—they can play.

It quickly became apparent that foundations can no longer focus only on internal operations/financials, investments, and acquiring private and corporate resources in support of their institutions. Proactive mission alignment of foundations with their institutions, based on greater understanding of institutional issues and challenges by volunteer board members, becomes paramount to assuring both foundation relevance and institutional survival. And this is where “courageous leadership” comes in. Passive leadership or “leadership by the numbers” no longer suffices. Foundation board members will be expected to act as well-informed and highly proactive advocates—not only for their own institution but also for all of higher education, especially public colleges and universities. Whereas legislatively appointed and/or elected board members may feel that they serve (are answerable to?) the state house or legislature, foundation boards are better positioned to be nimble, objective, and able to act as honest brokers in support of the institutional president and his/her vision and mission.

Beyond concerns about political intrusions, an equally troubling issue is that of eroding donor confidence and increasing donor skepticism (if not cynicism). With higher education’s greater reliance than ever on private philanthropic support (including corporate and foundation grants), maintaining an active, passionate, and committed pipeline of major donors/principal donors is critical to all aspects of institutional support (especially including student success). However, where there is continued turnover in institutional leadership (especially in the president or chancellor’s office), coupled with perceived inappropriate external influence, donors are likely to redirect their philanthropy to non-higher-ed causes that offer less controversy and drama.

As to what foundations and their boards can do, the conundrum is “staying in one’s lane” while also working to provide valued and welcomed support to the institution’s president or chancellor and at the same time working harmoniously with the institution’s governing board to demonstrate a shared commitment to strategic priorities.

For many years, some foundations have operated with a high degree of independence and autonomy, without being engaged in the inner workings of the campus. In fact, said autonomy can be used to deflect any criticism that is heaped upon the institution from the many—and often ideologically divided—constituencies. But those days are gone. The only reason public college and university foundations exist is to provide lifeblood to their respective institutions. As Ellen-Earle Chaffee has written previously, “united we stand…” (see Related Resources below).

For those foundation board chairs and CEOs/executive directors who do see their foundations as integral to the future survival and success of their institutions, here are a few recommendations:

  • Review the composition of the foundation board’s members (talent, skills, influence, passion for higher education and for the college or university).
  • Review the recruiting and on-boarding process (seek evidence of personal commitment coupled with greater understanding and awareness of the expectations of the volunteer board member).
  • Review the foundation’s memorandum of agreement/understanding with the institution and/or the system. Transform a stale, pro forma, legal document into a true “collaborative agreement,” assuring commitment and compliance not only to the letter, but also to the spirit of the document. (AGB will be publishing new guidance on the MOU process and sample memoranda in the spring and will share a draft of this at the January 2024 Foundation Leadership Forum.)
  • Turn “bored meetings” into educational and motivational time with university leadership, including deans, coaches, student leaders, etc.
  • Take a hard look at the “institutional support” being provided (per the foundation’s audited financials and IRS Form 990) and ask the question: Are we maximizing available resources and assuring student and mission success at the campus?
  • Increase the frequency of meaningful, issue-based dialogue with both institution leaders as well as the campus governing board if applicable. Find areas of agreement and mission intersection.
  • Motivate individual volunteer board members to not only lead philanthropically, but also to act as role models in advancing the institution among influencers in the local, state, and regional communities.
  • Become “force multipliers” for the university and/or foundation’s development and advancement team and be available to meet with or talk to concerned donors or investors who have questions.
  • Consider having a more “national board,” thereby expanding the pool of wealth, wisdom, and “willingness to work” engaged in support of the institution.
  • Invest in current institutional leadership, viewing the president or chancellor and his or her cabinet as valued assets, not just as employees of the institution.
  • Seek to be a part of the search process for new presidents or chancellors and participate in these individuals’ onboarding, while acknowledging that these hires are primarily the responsibility of the institution’s governing board and/or system board.

This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of possible steps for strengthening foundation boards, yet for some it may be new and challenging. The most important action to take is to acknowledge that we are all in this together, and we therefore must work the issues together. Many of the challenges facing higher education have been emerging (and cumulatively increasing) for years. Therefore it will take time to meet and to address them. Add “courageous” to your list of board attributes (collectively and individually). And remember this: “Although the safest place for the ship is the harbor, that is not the mission of the ship!”

George P. Watt Jr. is an AGB senior fellow and senior consultant.