It takes a Village to Raise...Our Family Foundation
The family behind the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation decided they'd make better grants if they embraced the input of nonfamily members.
In 1947, when Charles F. Noyes established our foundation with his New York real estate earnings as a memorial to his wife, he gathered together his daughters, sons-in-law and a handful of business associates to serve as the trustees who would raise his newest child, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation.
Today, shortly after the child's 50th birthday, ten of our 16 trustees are from outside the family, and the board is diverse racially, economically and culturally. Our chair and vice chair are both women of color, which is apparently a first among national foundations.
Has Mr. Noyes' family packed off his child to foster care? Hardly. At 53, the foundation has reached adulthood. Its diverse leadership is a sign of maturation, not neglect.
The "Extended Family"
After the founder's death in 1969, the foundation entered adolescence. Like most teenagers, it unconsciously embraced gender differences. The men took responsibility for financial decisions, while the women did the work of making grants and staffing the foundation. None were paid. But the child continued to grow and discover its identity. The all-female grants committee began to focus its definition of society's needs. They sharpened their funding strategy to assist students who planned to provide basic medical care in inner cities and rural areas, those who hoped to improve primary schools and teaching and those who would work to protect the environment.
The foundation grew to adulthood from the early 1980s onward. The family trustees, led by the women, looked at the world's most urgent problems, saw many and chose to address those that would be irreversible if not dealt with now. They saw that the ability of the planet to sustain life was in danger, and that our relationship to nature and to each other would have to change. They redefined the foundation's mission as protecting and restoring Earth's natural systems and promoting a sustainable society.
Recognizing the complexity and urgency of environmental and social issues, our family saw that it needed a broader pool of expertise and perspectives. And, like many family foundations, we faced the problem of our own sustainability as the first generations of board members aged. So we began a long process of building a professional staff and a larger, more varied board.
The most difficult part of the transition was for members who had been serving as unpaid staff for many years to hand over that responsibility to newly hired staff. To resolve this tension, we have had to continually clarify the appropriate roles and responsibilities of staff and board. For example, the board's job is now to set and review grantmaking policy, while the staff's is to select and recommend particular grantees. Although it was hard for trustees to give up the task of reading grant applications, doing so has allowed us to step back and look at the big picture. Now, we review our program areas as a whole, rather than debating the merits of specific grants. We can think more about how to respond to trends in the world, and in philanthropy.
Throughout this transition, we have struggled with how to make everyonefamily and nonfamily, board and stafffeel as much ownership of the foundation and its direction as the original board felt. We wanted each person to be able to participate in discussions about financial and program issues, without feeling that they had to defer to the family or to another's professional expertise.
We found that one way of encouraging this openness was to rotate assignments on our standing committees (grants, finance and nominating), and the chair, every two years. Chairs tried to ensure that each committee included a range of experience and backgrounds. New members generally joined the grants committee so they could learn about, and help shape, all of our programs. At least one nonfinance specialist sat on the finance committee, to offer additional perspectives on our investments. We have increasingly used ad hoc committees to do formal program reviews and address emerging issues in philanthropy, such as how to strengthen the organizations and movements we fund over the long term. These committees, assembled from across the board and staff, allow us to draw on our diversity as well.
It has taken more than 15 years to build the level of trust and accountability among family members, nonfamily members and staff that we have now. But today we know that we are immeasurably better off for having extended the family, and have accomplished far more than we could have alone.
How They Helped
The nonfamily board members helped us not only to protect our integrity better by screening out companies that most conflicted with our values, but also to make venture capital investments in start-ups that are more environmentally conscious. And they led us to be more active investors by voting our proxies and filing shareholder resolutions to influence corporate decisions.
The additions to the family, both board and staff, also deepened our understanding of our program strategies, and how to strengthen environmental movements. They helped us to think about how we grow, distribute and consume food and fiber as a system. That allowed us to see, among many other things, how to support the incomes of threatened family farmers and improve the diets of low-income urban dwellers by linking them through inner-city farmers' markets.
Newcomers helped to reorient our thinking about population issues, and to recognize that empowering all women to make their own reproductive choices was the most effective and humane way to address our increasing numbers. Through their experience in the field, new board and staff led us to reach out to the many groups run by women of color that are broadening the base and agenda of the reproductive rights and health movement.
We gained expertise in our antitoxics work as well, where new additions helped us find the spark and the soul of the movement among the grassroots groups who see these issues through the lens of environmental justice.
Working together, we developed two new program areas. We created a Sustainable Communities program, which funds local efforts in economic development that are environmentally sound and socially just. In a sense, this effort bridges the gap between the once-male preserve of economic development and the once-female world of grants. Our Metro New York grants aim to improve the environment of the nation's largest city, and the foundation's home. Through this program, we learn more about urban environmentalism and justice.
The diversity of our board and staff includes male and female; black, white, Latina and Native American; urban, suburban and rural; North, South, East and West; as well as experience from the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. There are three generations of people, some married and some single, some with children and some without.
Gender roles are changing within our family as well. Noyes' granddaughter is the lone family member who helps guide our investing on the finance committee. His great-grandsons serve on the grants committee.
"The Air We Breathe"
But we did not reach this point unconsciously. These institutional changes took more than a decade and a half, and would have taken longer if we had not pushed ourselves to make them happen sooner. At each step, family members and those who joined us realized that we needed to augment our skills and our view of how all peoples connect with the environment. We needed diversity not simply to reflect the movements we funded, but to understand them. We needed it to use our power wisely and effectively.
We will not remain diverse, or become more so, by assuming that we've been there, and done that. If we had not made a conscious decision to diversify, we could not have looked around the boardroom and seen that the woman who did such a stellar job of leading our nominating committee should be chair, or that the woman who led our successful search for a new president last year should be our vice chair. They simply would not have been in the room.
We don't want to pretend that our transition from a family-run foundation was without conflict. But scholars are increasingly telling us that conflict, while sometimes painful, is necessary for the health of an organization. Too much unexamined consensus can reinforce "groupthink." In the absence of alternative views, we may ignore or caricature new ideas. Subtle pressures to conform may arise, silencing differences of opinion. We may overestimate our power, or the moral worthiness of our actions. We can fail to hold ourselves accountable to others who are affected by our decisions. Foundations like ours may learn more from conflicts than agreements.
Maybe the best measure of our foundation's health isn't how often we agree, but whether we are struggling with the most important questions of the time. These days, most of our debates are over strategies for preserving and improving the environment, about what a just society might look like, and about whether and how the market economy can be reconciled with the natural world and with democracy. We can't imagine having those debates within a narrow slice of society, because the answers will affect us all.
Those are big questions, but Noyes' child is at the right time of life to ask them. We'll continue to seek tutelage from many. It takes a village to raise a foundation.
Resources for this article:
Edith Muma, Charles F. Noyes' daughter, has served on the board of the Noyes foundation since its inception in 1947.
Chad Raphael is a trustee of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation.