Open Calls in Philanthropy: An Uncommon Approach that Can Reveal Weaknesses and Maximize Strengths
In philanthropy, the open call interview process to fill board- and committee-level positions is not typically a common practice. These positions are often filled by those who already have an existing relationship with the foundation, such as colleagues and associates, friends and family members. Reasons for this vary—a closed process takes less time, it may feel safer to the governing group to invite like-minded individuals, or there might just be a longstanding belief to maintain exclusivity. Yet we know that closed processes restrict diversity, new opinions, perspectives, and experiences. Additionally, a foundation may not even know its own limitations or gaps in expertise without experiencing an open call.
That’s what the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) noticed. Bob Bancroft, vice president of finance and mission investing at NCF shared with me recently, “There is an inherent barrier in the traditional interview process, which is often limited to a close and previously established network. All sources are valuable, but philanthropies should consider what limitations certain recruitment methods create.” The Nathan Cummings Foundation is one of few that have pursued open calls with great success. By starting with a clear job description and input from various departments, NCF was able to narrow down the type of candidate that would best complement their board.
Committed to inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA) and taking inspiration from NCF, we at TRFF had an opportunity to implement an open call approach when adding new members to our Investment and Audit Committee (IAC) earlier this year. This committee provides oversight of TRFF’s mission-aligned investment affairs, providing counsel on the strategic direction of the Foundation’s endowment.
Our goal was to diversify TRFF’s IAC in a transparent way that would fill experience gaps and help ensure a well-rounded committee. We also believed this would remove the first barrier to access and give more candidates a potential seat at the table.
When speaking with TRFF’s Board President Sarah Cavanaugh about the open call process she shared that, “I would like to see more foundations challenge themselves and implement a similar process, even if it requires out of the box thinking. Taking the time to get clear on your priorities and goals first is a critical step to future success.”
Before TRFF started recruiting for the IAC, we assessed the combined skillset of our current members to gain a clear sense of additional skills needed. This research helped us know what to look for in candidates, including tangible experiences that were not currently present on the committee. We also kept in mind our future goals, such as continuing to transition to a net-zero portfolio. We knew we wanted to prioritize candidates with expertise in climate and environmental justice who could help define TRFF’s strategy for the next 10 years and support our new goals set forth.
Tim Cavanaugh, treasurer at TRFF and IAC member who also interviewed people during the open call noted, “We hoped these candidates would be able to think deeply about the impact of investments, not solely the financials. We understand the urgency to make progress on top concerns regarding the climate and wanted to invite new members who shared our ability to think deeply about potential solutions.”
Once TRFF had a better idea of areas for growth, we posted the open call nationally across multiple channels including trade associations, philanthropy and investing networks and social media. While our work focuses primarily on the Northwest, we were open to talent from anywhere in the United States.
The Foundation received more than 30 applications from highly qualified individuals with a mix of incredible skills and experiences. Each of the 30 applicants received a personal response outlining information on next steps in the interview process, specific criteria TRFF would be looking for and a full list of the intended interview questions.
With this structure in place, TRFF interviewed all candidates. Following this first wave of interviews, eight candidates were invited to participate in a one-hour interview with the IAC. Three candidates then moved to a final interview stage, a vote among the IAC members and a final vote by the board. About four months later in March 2022, TRFF welcomed three new IAC members all with diverse backgrounds from private equity to business leadership to environmental policy.
Before wrapping up the effort, TRFF also took time to provide feedback to those not selected and invited candidates to provide their feedback on the open call process. Some applicants found the process to be exciting, inspiring and thoughtful, especially for the young professionals who were getting their first experience learning more about committee roles.
Investment and Audit Committee member and interviewer Josh Cavanaugh shared that he was, “grateful to all these impressive candidates for taking the time to share their experiences to continue to develop the process for future opportunities.”
Takeaways for Other Foundations
By going through a similar process, foundations can come to a clearer understanding of their own experience gaps and identify exactly what they need. For TRFF, it forced us to be even more intentional and truly spotlighted the opportunities to diversify our existing perspective and bring new energy and strengths to further our impact investing.
For foundations considering venturing into their own open call, consider these three takeaways.
Identify Existing Gaps
Take time to reflect on the current makeup of your organization to identify areas of improvement for new knowledge and experience that could be beneficial in current or future efforts. Next, develop a position description that targets individuals who meet your desired criteria. This research phase also allows team members to discuss areas in need of development openly and transparently.
To honor the time and effort from applicants, follow a transparent and structured interview process. This can be done by sharing a timeline with each applicant, as well as background on what to expect at various stages and any rubric you are using to assess skills and experience. Decisions made at the board level are often veiled, so being transparent with the process allows for more direct, honest discussions that can create strong connections and allow you to find the best fit for your role.
Be open to keeping the discussion open even after a recipient is not selected for a position. Actively inviting feedback helps build your reputation as an organization that is open to growth. Feedback will affirm your areas of strength and allow you to see opportunities for change.
We hope other foundations will adopt a similar approach, a process built on the fundamental belief that who sits at the table matters deeply and that everyone benefits by expanding the circle.