Connectivity impacts governance and grantmaking
This increased level of connection has the ability to increase our familiarity with (and mobility between) places and people geographically far away. In turn, it also directly affects the governance and grantmaking of private foundations. Decisions are generally made by a collection of directors, trustees, and advisors. Yet it’s more likely today that these decision-makers are geographically dispersed, with widely different perspectives and interests. A Pew Research Center survey found that most Americans move to a new community at least once in their lives, and the National Center for Family Philanthropy notes that 40% of foundation board members say younger family members have moved away from the foundation’s geographic location.2
Given the impact of these changes, it’s often helpful for a donor to specify a foundation’s programmatic and geographic focus. However, in those circumstances when a donor doesn’t specify such priorities, your foundation’s board must often work to define them. As it relates to geography, donors are giving less direction than they have in the past. According to the National Center for Family Philanthropy, only about 40% of foundations created since 2010 focus their giving on geography—whereas geography is a focus for 80% of foundations created before 1970.”2
For private foundation boards dealing with geographic dispersion, it’s important to answer critical questions prior to awarding grants and establishing a strategy:
- Did the donor direct the board to restrict grantmaking to a specific geographic area?
- Does your foundation prefer to focus on providing community support by programmatic area (for example, prioritizing the issue of homelessness or early childhood education)?
- Or, do you turn your attention to a specific geographic area—perhaps where the wealth was created—and worry less about specific program areas?
- If you’re running a family foundation, is family engagement a priority? If so, some level of flexibility in grantmaking will likely help to encompass the wide-ranging interests of family members.
Once your foundation’s grantmaking priorities regarding a geographic focus area are established, the increasing geographic dispersion of board members then presents a new set of challenges to foundation governance.
First, your foundation must work to maintain focus on its mission and grantmaking impact, particularly if there’s a specific, defined geographic focus other than where many board members live. When board members’ lives are centered in differing locations, often too are their giving interests. Secondly, your foundation should work to ensure active communication and engagement from board members when in-person interaction is difficult or impractical. Finally, for family foundations, geographic dispersion of family members often makes maintaining a family legacy more complex.
Best practices to address geographic dispersion challenges
|Challenge: Focus on the Mission||Challenge: Engagement & Communication||Challenge: Family Connectivity|
|Lean on community-based leaders as advisors (whether they serve on the foundation board as voting members or in an advisory-only capacity) to better understand community needs||Site visits, either in person or by phone/video, to connect board members with the importance of the work of the foundation||Host family meetings in rotating locations, perhaps with a social component to encourage a focus on family legacy|
|Convene grantee gaterings to amplify the work of the foundation's grantmaking programs||Utilize technology: meeting scheduling tools, phone/video conferencing, document sharing, website board portals||Establish flexible grantmaking guidelines to allow for individual interests and passions|
|Encourage board members to "champion" grant requests and make presentations on behalf of those organizations||Incorporate a matching grants program, if appropriate, to engage dispersed board members||Keep family/board members up to-date on status of grantee work in between meetings|
|Utilize a community foundation for small percentage of giving if no board member is familiar with the geographic area||Consider sub-committees or boards: for example, Senior and Junior, or Investments, Governance, and Grantmaking||Utilize regional foundation associations for continuing education to be shared at future meeting|