I recently joined the board of a county-wide association of nonprofits. Representatives of two large county foundations are also board members. Some on the board see such representation as very beneficial. Others see at least two problems: the voices and votes of the foundation reps carry disproportionate weight and their presence inhibits totally candid discussion. There are some who are also troubled by the judgment of the foundations which permit their staff to sit on grantee boards and by the willingness of those staff to do so. What would you advise?
This is a great question, one to which I do not think there is an absolute answer or should be an absolute rule. Everyone has a point, and they all have some merit.
In your specific case, the foundations are nonprofits in the county. I see no reason that they should not participate in dealing with issues facing nonprofits in the county. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that foundation representatives could not serve on the board of the regional association of grantmakers just because they fund the organization.
The issues with a direct service provider may be somewhat different, and certainly there are a lot of private foundations who won’t let their staff sit on boards of grantees. One could argue that the foundation representatives can learn a lot about how the grantseekers see the world by serving on the board of a grantseeker. Also, what about a community foundation, where the boards are supposed to be broadly representative of the community? It would be a shame to prohibit a grant to an organization on whose board a foundation board member also served. That would ultimately reduce the pool from which to draw good board members to the community foundation.
Every situation is different, but I think that with openness and forthright discussion of the issues, representation can be helpful to both sides in many situations.
There is a lot of “we-they” thinking in the grantmaking world, which is probably inevitable when the grantseekers feel like supplicants and the grantmakers often feel as though they have the right to impose whatever restrictions they want on “their” money. Having them work together more often may lead to a little bit more sense of partnership in trying to improve the community.
I once voted against seating a private foundation executive on a state association of nonprofits for many of the reasons you set out in your question. I was very quickly glad I had been on the losing side of the vote. The exec turned out to be an extraordinarily valuable member of the board and I never had the feeling that board discussion was adversely affected in any way by his participation. My theoretical fears were never realized in fact.