Foundation Operations: Board Issues-> Sound Decisions to Strategic Directions - GIH Skip Navigation

Foundation Operations: Board Issues-> Sound Decisions to Strategic Directions


As health funders work to improve health and health care in increasingly complex settings, they face the need to make changes in focus, style, and strategy. For foundations considering new areas, such as funding policy and advocacy, an important first step is engaging board members to help them understand and embrace the course of action and goals for funding these activities.

Opportunities exist in both the recruitment of new board members and the education of current members. Foundations that rotate board members and bring in individuals on a defined basis for open seats have a prime opportunity to infuse fresh perspectives into the organization as well as to influence the outlook of existing board members. Individuals who have intimate experience with community needs and experience as advocates are more likely to support innovative policy and advocacy activities.

In addition to recruiting board members who will endorse a foundation's new direction, foundation staff and board leaders can create opportunities for educating current board members. While the orientation process for board members is one opportunity to express the culture and direction of the organization to ensure that incoming board members understand the foundation's approach to grantmaking, ongoing strategies are also important. For example:

  • The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, Inc. made a major investment in, and ultimately lost, a fluoridation campaign. Rather than get discouraged, staff used this experience as an opportunity to reexamine how its board prepared for future advocacy efforts. The foundation hired an experienced policy advocate to train and coach board members on the ins-and-outs of funding advocacy and address their questions and concerns.


  • Some foundations invite board members to affinity group meetings and use this as an opportunity to introduce them to issues they may not be exposed to in their everyday lives. The Consumer Health Foundation does this and devotes time at their following board meeting to think about what was learned or to have a discussion about a health policy issue. Board members discuss the key take-away lessons and then reflect on how these lessons relate to the foundation's work.


  • The Connecticut Health Foundation has established a policy committee on its board to take control of internal policy and be responsible for addressing political issues. In doing so, the foundation's board and staff fully understand that this includes a fair share of wins as well as losses. While it did have success immediately, the board recognizes that it may have to someday be at the forefront of controversial issues or be willing to accept policy failures. The foundation is also reaching out to other community opinion leaders, particularly those in business and labor communities, to build a stronger collaborative effort around health policy issues.


Related Reading

Center for Effective Philanthropy, “Special Issue: Foundation Governance,” Effective Matters, 2007.

Fieldstone Alliance, "Leading Through a Change Without Losing Your Mind," Tools You Can Use, (St. Paul, MN: October 6, 2006).

Grantmakers In Health, The Path to Policy Change, Issue Brief No. 26 (Washington, DC: February 2006).

Grantmakers In Health, "Taking Time for Board Engagement Strategies," Issue Focus, GIH Bulletin, April 5, 2004.


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