Last week, I had the pleasure of helping to lead a discussion at CEP’s biennial national conference about the critical partnership between foundation CEOs and boards. I was joined by two fantastic leaders from the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF): Kevin Walker, president & CEO (and member of BoardSource’s Board), and Rod Jordan, who recently completed his term as chair of the NWAF Board.

In framing the session, I shared with participants that I hoped we could have a “juicy” conversation about the real-life dynamics of the board-staff partnership. And, thanks to Kevin and Rod’s thoughtful candor about their own experiences, we were able to do just that. We invited participants into a conversation about the inner workings of a foundation board and the unique and critical relationship between boards and executives, surfacing some of the challenges that can emerge and what — particularly as foundation executives — can be done to navigate them.

Important themes emerged:

  • A trusting and productive partnership between the board chair and the CEO is the starting point for a good board-staff partnership, and that requires a culture of honesty, candor, and “no surprises.”
  • Established governance processes are a helpful way to ensure that board practices are well thought out and guided by best practices, but culture often trumps process and boards and executives should be cautious about establishing “bad” processes as a way to address an isolated or specific issue.
  • The board chair’s role is essential in helping to guide and facilitate the board’s work — and the relationship with the CEO. This includes addressing challenging issues or behaviors within the board itself, which cannot effectively be addressed by the CEO themselves.

Read the full article about foundation boardrooms by Anne Wallestad at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.