Realigning Foundation Trustees to Incentivize Learning

Published: June 2019

Type: Presentation

Although philanthropy has moved toward acknowledging less strategic certainty upfront about what it will take to make real progress on complex social problems, and values more strategic emergence alongside continuous learning and adaptation, little has been done to shift the technocratic routines that still govern the board room. This article (based on a short talk) proposes some habit shifts to get us started.


From a 20-minute talk given at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Learning Conference, May 30, 2019. This is the elevator speech. Download the PDF to get a full transcript (10 pages).


One of the things that routinely gets in the way of foundations having a learning culture is what happens when staff and boards engage.

The problem is that most of the routines in the board room are actually based on the mental model that social change is a technocratic problem-solving endeavor. So what happens—in the ways that artifacts get exchanged with boards, and in the ways that board conversations get set up—is that we incentivize and reward staff who project a degree of certainty about how social change happens that’s just not real because the change process is much more complex.

There could be a lot of power in starting to change the routines and habits that hold that technocratic mental model in place.

The first problematic habit to address is using a preset fixed set of indicators as the primary mechanism for accountability.

This approach reinforces the technocratic mental model and suggests that what it means for foundations (or a staff person or grantee) to be effective, is successfully predicting what outcomes will happen at particular moments in time. This gets in the way of being able to grapple with the complexity of change and the negotiated nature of change work.

  • Instead, being effective means being really good at the ongoing navigation and sensing of what’s happening around us and responding accordingly. It’s as straightforward as offering up to boards a different set of accountability questions. To say that it is your job as a board to ask, “Given that you noticed “X” about the system, how is your strategy accounting for that?”
  • A second and maybe slightly easier alternative is to plan proactively for outcomes and indicators to evolve.

Problematic habit number two is that we routinely see strategy proposals promising outcomes that far outpace the resources, timeframe, and level of influence of a foundation or grantees.

This causes people to overpromise and then, in turn, overclaim what they’ve accomplished. It also causes people to hide the challenges that they’re encountering. Finally, it causes boards to prematurely draw conclusions about an initiative’s effectiveness.

  • The alternative is to have a different relationship between the north star goals and the close-in outcomes that you’re spending the most time paying attention to and thinking about. Right-sizing expectations to outcomes that are more tightly in your sphere of control can give you the kind of fodder you need for authentic learning conversations.

Problematic habit number three is that foundations exhaust their evaluative and reporting energy getting a lot of quantitative data aimed at describing change instead of identifying what it means for their work.

  • Alternatives are focusing your systematic methods where there’s uncertainty or opacity, and re-situating your data as a starting point in the conversation, rather than as an end point.
  • Also shift the balance of what you focus on in your board materials and in the board room to more equitably address the “What? So what? Now what?” questions. Leave enough time to say, “So what do we think this means? And now how are we going to change the way we’re moving forward to address it?”

Give it a try and tell us how it goes. Let’s see if we can begin to shift that culture!