The competence center for charitable foundations "It's time for boards of trustees to embrace the next generation."
The bar needs to be set lower so that young people can enter the world of foundation governance. That is what Beate Eckhardt – an experienced board of trustees and board of directors member – thinks. So, she did something about it. In the summer of 2021, she co-founded the Board for Good Foundation. In this interview, the philanthropy expert explains what it is about and why the next generation will be an enrichment for the foundations sector.
Ms. Eckhardt, you have worked in the foundations sector for over 20 years. What is it about foundations that fascinates you so much?
I believe that we shouldn't leave it entirely up to government and business to overcome many of the challenges we face. We also need action from civil society organizations. Foundation work is one way for people to dedicate themselves to a cause. Foundations enable projects to be carried out that would otherwise be impossible. They promote diversity, development, and cooperation. What's more, their work paves the way for the government to adapt proven models.
Just recently, in the summer of 2021, you co-founded the Board for Good Foundation. What is the vision behind it?
The Board for Good Foundation is a charitable subfoundation founded by myself and Prof. Georg von Schnurbein, Director of the Center for Philanthropy Studies at the University of Basel. The idea behind the foundation is to introduce young people to the world of foundation governance. We do that by training them extensively for the work on a board of trustees, establishing a strategic network, and making them visible in the sector.
Why is that important?
The bar has been set too high for young people to become members of boards of trustees. That is because foundations usually do not even take them into consideration. Their justification for that is often that the next generation lacks the experience for strategic work. That is a missed opportunity since it would do many boards of trustees some good to have more diverse age groups. And the "next generation" also deserves the chance to work in this important sector. In my opinion, they are not sufficiently involved in decisions affecting their future.
Was there a specific reason for establishing the Board for Good Foundation? There seems to have been a need for quite some time now.
Yes, indeed. Two years ago, I moderated a workshop at the Swiss Foundations Symposium. Within five minutes, the discussion revolved around the question of how to provide access to foundation governance for young people. The helplessness among the audience was palpable. Many people are unsure about the best way. It became clear to me that help was needed in this area.
How did you proceed?
With the Board for Good Foundation, we devised a scholarship and alumni program for young people. We pitched our program to foundations and companies and told them this: "If you think the foundations sector needs to evolve, contribute – and enable the next generation to receive training with the aid of scholarships." We received positive responses and managed to build a diverse range of partnerships.
Why did you decide to enter a program partnership with Credit Suisse to launch the Board for Good platform?
On this central issue, it was important to us to be involved with more kinds of organizations than just foundations. Otherwise, we would run the risk of becoming isolated in a bubble. By also working with commercial partners, we come in contact with other mindsets. At the same time, Credit Suisse is familiar with the world of foundations thanks to its Competence Center for Charitable Foundations and as a result of its many years of commitment to philanthropy. Furthermore, Credit Suisse is not only our financial partner but also an important channel of communication for us. It connects us to those clients who want to use their wealth to do something for society.
In addition to enabling the involvement of young people, you want the Board for Good Foundation to also promote diversity on boards of trustees. What is your definition of diversity?
There are many aspects to diversity on a board of trustees – for example, gender, age, skills, professional background, and cultural experience. A good mix produces a variety of perspectives, allowing better and more effective decision-making. I advise foundations to ask themselves this question: "What degree of diversity do we need, and to what extent do we fulfill that need already?" If there is room for improvement, the composition of the board of trustees should be evaluated using a professional skills profile.
What requirements do young people need to meet for a scholarship from the Board for Good Foundation?
We have set the upper age limit at 35 and require a university degree because being on a board of trustees involves a lot of strategic work. It is also an advantage for them to have gained initial work experience, preferably in the area of project management. This doesn't need to have been at a company; they can also have been involved in a civil society organization. We would also like to hear why applicants wish to make an active contribution to society.
What sort of candidates are you hoping to hear from?
The ideal candidates are individuals from different sectors such as research, education, social affairs, recreation, and environmental affairs. After all, foundations are equally diverse. And also have an interest in recruiting people for their boards who feel a connection to the foundation's purpose.
How does the procedure work from application to acceptance into the program?
We select an initial pool of candidates based on objective criteria. The candidates can then pick one of our training partners, and we introduce the candidate to the partner. Our partners are the Rochester-Bern Executive Programs in Bern and the Foundation Board Academy with offerings in Basel and, starting in the spring of 2022, in Geneva. The training partners then select those individuals who are the best fit for them. We have an agreement with our partners stipulating that roughly one-third of their program openings are to be made available to our "NextGen" scholarship holders.
Where do you see the Board for Good Foundation in ten years?
At the moment, our financing will last for the next three years, during which we will be able to educate 70 to 90 young people. Afterward that, we will evaluate the situation and see where we go from there. The proof of the pudding will be how many scholarship holders are actually serving on boards of trustees at the end of 2024. Ideally, there will be no more need at all for our scholarship program in ten years because foundations will consider it natural and worthwhile to invest in training their own young talent.
Our society is in a constant state of flux. Will the work done by boards of trustees change as well in the coming years?
Dealing with the major macrotrends, such as climate change, demographic change, migration, and digitalization, requires collaboration across many sectors. It is precisely this collaborative mindset that the next generation brings with it. They make less of a distinction between business and the public interest. Instead, they stand for a universal set of values. So, foundations are well advised to include young people on their boards right now.
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