Thoughts from the Pre-Conference Institute for Trustees & CEOs: “Insights for Philanthropic Leadership”

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Richard Woo, CEO of the Russell Family Foundation.

By:  Richard Woo

Today I attended the Council on Foundation’s pre-conference institute for Trustees & CEOs called “Insights for Philanthropic Leadership.”  The one and a half day institute is focused on themes that trustees and CEOs are often charged with overseeing including governance, board/staff relations, strategy, gauging impact, succession planning, and stakeholder relations.

I must say, the quality of today’s conversations exceeded my expectations, largely because there was an unusually high level of trust and candor in the room. Here are some of the themes and comments I heard throughout the day, including one I contributed myself on creative conflict:


One trustee remarked half in jest and then quite seriously:

“The less people know about something, the more they feel like experts. One of the most important things we did as a board was to visit with children and families. Looking into the faces of children taught us so much more. And there is so much more to know. Staff know more, and the communities know more still.”


Measure how robust the board conversation is by the quality of the questions that are raised, not just by the answers that are provided.


Will Rogers once said: “It doesn’t matter that you’re on the right track if you’re standing still-you’re going to get run over if you’re not moving.”


One CEO remarked:

“Too often the conversation is too focused on the individual grantees. If I, as the staff, am bringing the board the wrong grantees, then fire me. The larger question should be ‘Is the strategy working and are we accomplishing what we set out to do?’ That’s the generative question the board should be addressing.”


Over time I learned the value of creative disruption. I used to approach board meetings using a corporate model of efficiency. I tried to gain alignment among trustees on issues before the actual board meeting through individual phone calls with trustees. The goal was to conduct a smooth, seamless board meeting in which all decisions were actually decided beforehand. That’s not really governance, that’s theater.

Now I believe it is more important to break trustees out of alignment in those pre-meeting phone calls and encourage them to express their divergent views in the actual meeting so we can have a deeper discussion of the issues. Hopefully this generates decisions that are more durable.

My role as CEO is to create and maintain a safe and respectful place for trustees and staff to speak their truths. In a family foundation where there may be pressure to maintain the semblance of unity-I believe the encouragement of creative conflict is critical to achieving higher philanthropic impact.

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