by Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation


autumn foliage


The Board of the Surdna Foundation convened, as it always does, a week after Labor Day.  Our September meeting always feels like the start of a new year.  Summer is over, kids are back in school, and a busy autumn awaits.  And this meeting, in many ways, felt like the beginning of something for Surdna.  The meeting became an experiment—an example, really—of a new kind of board engagement and leadership.  


Surdna is a family foundation, which in our case means that the majority of our board members are descendants of our founder John E. Andrus.  This has always resulted in the board taking a particularly strong interest in the work of the foundation. Being an engaged board member is the norm, not the exception, at Surdna.  This is one of our distinct strengths—the feeling around our board table is quite different from organizations that often have difficulty keeping their trustees’ attention from meeting-to-meeting, or year-to-year.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to know just how best to engage the board’s talents, enthusiasm, and deep love for the foundation and our work.  


Several years ago, Surdna’s board went through an exercise in reworking the mission of the foundation and recasting our grantmaking programs.  This was a time of terrific energy and engagement from the board and is often cited—almost as lore—as the board’s finest work in the current era.  The question I faced—we all faced—was whether that focused sense of purpose and deep engagement could be repeated in this current period, a period of implementation.  We aren’t inventing something new or reorganizing the work of the foundation.  We’re bringing our strategies to life in the field.  What I have discovered in the past few months, punctuated by the September Board Meeting, is the answer to that question is a resounding yes.


In January, the board met in retreat to think about the work it wanted to do together.  I was a bit skeptical that we would come up with anything new.  What happened, though, was the board identified important priorities for the foundation in the coming period, including examining how the board itself should function.  There were two practical outcomes from the retreat: first, we were able to update our strategic priorities, something we call our “roadmap,” which now includes important new ideas from both board and staff; and, second, the board formed several working groups that would lead the foundation’s thinking in key areas that fell outside the purview of our standing committees.  It was at the September board meeting that the power of these new working groups was felt for the first time.


Those of us who are in leadership positions in organizations know that the work of improving, adjusting, prodding, and, well, leading these institutions is never complete.  There’s always something to be done.  At Surdna, we have wrestled for many years with getting sharper in our understanding of what the best use of board member time and skills is—what is their job?  Also, for more than a decade, we have asked ourselves whether there are more and better ways we can put our $1 billion endowment to work in service of our mission.  And, as we approach our centennial year of 2017, we are determined to answer the question of just how and why to celebrate this important milestone.



None of these issues are new to Surdna, but we have had difficulty getting momentum behind them and devoting the kind of board and staff leadership necessary to find solutions.  The formation of working groups seems to have finally changed the equation.  These working groups, led by board members with staff support, have gathered momentum over the past few months, and took the lead at our September board meeting.  


It was wonderful to see board members fully embrace this leadership at the September meeting.  But, more importantly, on the issue of board role, endowment deployment, and the celebration of our centennial, we have built remarkable momentum.  And this momentum could not have been created by staff alone.  Board leadership is essential because these are issues that go beyond day-to-day grantmaking or quarterly program strategies, they are very much at the heart of how we do our work. 


Using working groups isn’t a novel idea; it’s not even novel to Surdna.  But sometimes as we grind through the work week-to-week, quarter-to-quarter, we get stuck.  Answering the question of how best to use the various talents in the foundation—whether board talent or staff talent—is quite difficult.  It is becoming increasingly clear to me that since the January board retreat we were beginning to answer the board’s most critical question—what is the work they should be doing now, in this era of the foundation?  I think we’ve found it.  


We will never finish making Surdna the best foundation it can be.  And, because of that, we will always find new questions that need answering, new problems that need solving.  The challenge will be to remain attuned to these questions, these needs, and to recognize that board leadership will always be critical to moving us forward.


As always, let me know your thoughts and suggestions as we continue our work of fostering just and sustainable communities.





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