The Five Characteristics of Great Foundation Board Members

By Leonard Raley    //    Volume 29,  Number 6   //    November/December 2021

Foundation leadership has evolved over the last few decades and has become both an increasingly challenging yet meaningful career path. To help move the profession forward, it is paramount to consider what makes a great foundation leader. Two books that AGB has published in the last year, Principles of Trusteeship and New Realities for Public Higher Education Foundations, inspired me to reflect upon my own career and some of the lessons learned that I have learned about foundation leadership. I have been in this business for long time, and have had the good fortune to work with all types of amazing board members. Throughout the years, I have seen them come and I have seen them go. They have included types such as the hard charger, the charismatic, the cerebral, the data driven, and the visionary. Reflecting upon that experience, which includes having led two different institutionally related foundations and having worked with colleagues all around the country, I have identified five leadership characteristics that last and stand the test of time, and that great board directors share.

1. A great foundation board member is a leader. 

Mission driven and committed to the foundation’s mission, vision, and values, a great foundation board member acts with integrity and the highest ethics; there are no surprises and there is full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest. He or she is a strategic thinker who sees the “big picture” and understands the importance of not just representing one or two areas of the university. A great board member can “see the view from 30,000 feet” and remember that their work is supposed to impact the priorities of the university, and not pet projects of board members. Many great foundation board members hail from many different backgrounds. Some have business experiences from C-suite and corporate boards while others are entrepreneurs who started and ran successful businesses, or had significant experiences in the public sector.

2. A great foundation board member is a learner and a listener. 

A passion for lifelong learning and listening is a key trait of a great foundation board member. These board members want to learn more about their foundation work and they do that by investing in educational opportunities such as participating in AGB conferences and webinars and reading AGB’s Trusteeship magazine. He or she is a good listener who asks insightful questions and invests the time to learn as much as possibly about the university he or she serves and about the entire higher education landscape today. Many foundation boards have alumni who serve, and while they often remember their years at the university fondly, they may not realize how much has changed since they graduated. A great board member makes it a priority to become educated about all aspects of the foundation’s work, is aware of social issues at both the campus and national levels (sometimes, students and other stakeholders have a way of bringing their issues to the foundation’s doorsteps). He or she understands the importance of keeping up with national and international issues and looks to our professional associations, such as AGB and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) for data and help to identify emerging trends and issues.

3. A great foundation board member is a grateful giver of time, treasure, and talent. 

Not only does a great foundation board member have a record of demonstrated philanthropy and willingness to help fundraise as appropriate, he or she is also fully engaged to help the foundation achieve its goals. (It is not just about writing a check.) Such a leader also has a history of volunteer service on other boards. The best board members view the foundation as a destination board—often a pinnacle of their life’s volunteer work. He or she brings expertise and perspective that elevates the board’s work and is a champion for the university’s priorities.

4. A great foundation board member is a diligent team player. 

A great board member shows up prepared to engage with the board. He or she reads the materials in advance and shows up prepared to discuss them. A great foundation board member embraces the importance of the fiduciary role: the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience. He or she understands that they are there to set policy but not to micromanage operations and raises questions privately with management if there is something they do not understand. A great board member respects different viewpoints, is a faithful attendee at committee and board meetings, and greatly values the knowledge and work of the foundation staff.

5. A great foundation board member is a faithful (but not unquestioning) advocate. 

Being an advocate for the foundation and institution as well as being passionate about higher education is often a hallmark of a great foundation board member. He or she uses his or her network for the benefit of the foundation and institution (e.g., is an “ear to the ground”) and helps identify emerging issues or misinformation that could become problematic. A great board member stands with the university during crisis situations and understands that the foundation exists to support the university and needs to be aligned with the institution as a strong partner.

The work of foundations has never been more important than it is today— the pandemic has exposed a variety of challenges, many of which are economic, for our colleges and universities. Great foundation board members are dedicated to helping their institutions thrive. They perform their roles with grace and a good sense of humor, and are serious about the business at hand, but do not take themselves too seriously. Foundations deal with varying types of hot topics such as cryptocurrency, cybersecurity, fundraising in the digital economy, different endowment models, hybrid board meetings, and artificial intelligence. These foci ebb and flow over time, but the characteristics identified in this column tend to endure. As Albert Finney (playing the character Kinkade) in the James Bond movie Skyfall said, “sometimes the old ways are the best.”

Leonard Raley is president and CEO of the University System of Maryland Foundation, Inc., where he has served since 2005.