Opinion

The case for term limits for foundation program staff

Mar 14, 2022

Among other things, according to the outgoing Hewlett Foundation program staffer, “Knowing that I would hold my position for only eight years has, throughout my service at the Foundation, reminded me that this is not my money.”

Later this month, I will come to the end of my term appointment at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, where I have directed our grantmaking to strengthen U.S. democracy for the past eight years. As this milestone approaches, people are increasingly asking me why the Foundation has term limits and whether I think they are helpful. I’ve joked that while they are a bad idea for legislators, whose terms can be limited in any given election, they are good for foundation program staff. Let me explain why.

First, term limits reinforce a stewardship ethic among program staff. Consider this definition of stewardship from Merriam Webster: “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” Knowing that I would hold my position for only eight years has, throughout my service at the Foundation, reminded me that this is not my money. It is money that William and Flora Hewlett donated through the tax code to advance ideas, support institutions, and promote a better world. My job is to dedicate the funds I’ve been entrusted with for a limited period to their highest and best use, consistent with program strategies and guiding principles affirmed by our president and board.

Second, term limits help program staff recall and/or anticipate what it is like to sit on the other side of the table. Before I came to the Foundation, I worked at a nonprofit where I joined with colleagues to ask foundations for support. While I am presently sorting out what I will do next, it is highly likely I will once again be a grantseeker. This temporal proximity has prompted me to treat those seeking funding as I would wish to be treated if in their shoes, on the receiving end of philanthropic power dynamics. Hence, to take two examples, I have always endeavored to be fully transparent about our strategies and respond in a respectful and timely way to all inbound inquiries, even—especially—when we are not in a position to fund them. I know what it felt like and can imagine what it would feel like in the future to be treated differently by a funder.

Third, term limits allow for ongoing evolution and embedded diversity in the people, perspectives, and networks that inform our program strategies and grantmaking. I have brought a particular set of viewpoints, ideas, and connections to my role at the Foundation. During my time at the Foundation, I developed them further. Later this month, our president Larry Kramer will extend an offer to whomever he selects as my successor from a diverse and competitive candidate pool generated through an extensive search. Whoever replaces me will bring a different constellation of viewpoints, ideas, and connections to the Foundation, refreshing and opening up new possibilities for our ongoing work as they do so. It is not easy to develop and implement philanthropic strategies, but it is not brain surgery or rocket science. People from many different backgrounds and lived experiences can do it well. The recurring “rotation in office” resulting from the Foundation’s term limits ensures more people have the opportunity to do so.

Finally, on a related note, term limits do not get in the way of continuity. As Larry noted in response to a grantee’s question about term limits a few years ago,

[I]t’s important to understand that staff transitions at the Foundation do not trigger radical shifts or the abandonment of a line of grant making. New staff bring new ideas and new ways of thinking to the work: that’s one of the key benefits of having term limits. But our strategies exist independently of the staff members who conceive of and execute them, and we are equally committed to sensible continuity.

To be sure, our strategies don’t exist in perpetuity. We evaluate and refresh them every four to five years. For example, my successor will work with the program officers on our team to implement and assess our strategies for national governing institutions and trustworthy elections that we launched last year. In three to four years, the new director—by that time fully onboarded and familiar with the work of the Foundation and our program—will work with the team they will be leading then, which itself will continue to evolve as program officers and fellows term out, to reprise this process of renewal.

I will, of course, miss working at this terrific institution and directing its grantmaking to strengthen U.S. democracy, which it has been my privilege to lead for the past eight years. But I also know I have done my share of the task, and now it will be another fortunate person’s turn to lead this vital work. I look forward to seeing how they go about it and what they accomplish.

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