Vol. 42, No. 2

NCBF discusses best practices for foundation boards, how to get younger members

by Dan Kittay

One problem for any bar foundation is keeping younger members interested in participating on the board, to ensure that it can continue to thrive in succeeding generations. At the Orange County (Calif.) Bar Foundation, they solved that problem by creating a second “junior” board, composed of younger attorneys.

“By bringing in these young professionals, they get mentored by the ‘big board,’” said Karen Ruan, the foundation’s executive director. “They learn how to be on the board of a nonprofit, and learn how to raise funds. They network with board members who tend to be more established in their law firms, and they get a chance to perform community and volunteer work.”

Ruan spoke at a National Conference of Bar Foundations 2017 Annual Meeting program called “Better Practices for Your Board: How to Succeed by Really Trying.”


The governing OCBF board has 40 members, while the associate board has 34. The associate board was started five years ago, to provide a place for “socially conscious, motivated young professionals in their 20s and 30s” to find a place to put their ideals into practice, and in the process learn about how boards work and get accustomed to being a part of the OCBF, Ruan said.

The foundation, which funds its own programs rather than issuing grants, puts the young board members into programs where they can work with low-income students and other such clients, and gain useful experience.

“We offer them opportunities to volunteer. They are making a difference in their community, and they like it,” Ruan said, adding that she expects that some of the younger members will eventually become members of the governing board. “They will stay with you over time.”

Other ways to reach younger lawyers

The District of Columbia Bar Foundation has a Young Lawyers Network Leadership Council, which allows members of the bar under age 40 to learn about how to work on a nonprofit board, and meet with more experienced attorneys who can mentor them, said Kirra L. Jarratt, the foundation’s executive director. The group meets six times a year and hears from senior board members who talk about the importance of legal aid, and career paths that younger lawyers can follow if they are interested in working in the legal services wing of the profession. The members also learn about how to raise funds.

Most of the committees of the Tulsa County Bar Foundation are staffed by younger lawyers, says James R. Gotwals, the foundation's president. Tulsa County Bar Association members are also made members of the TCBF, which helps the foundation integrate new members and potentially interest them in its work. The committees all have an experienced foundation board member who works with committee members on their projects and acts as a mentor.

Who gets to be on the board?

The structure of foundation boards, and how members are recruited, was a key part of the program. Elizabeth Derrico, associate executive director of the New York State Bar Association and program moderator, recalled that in earlier times, those who completed their service in bar association governance moved into a role on the foundation board, “whether you were interested in the mission of the foundation or not.”

Now, she said, many bar foundations are “much more focused on who’s on our board, and if they are mission-driven.”

That’s the case in Tulsa, Gotwals confirmed. Past presidents of the TCBA are eligible and encouraged—but not required—to become foundation president one year after serving as association president. Because it’s a smaller bar foundation, Gotwals said, “someone has to want to be involved. We recruit people who we think will be able to contribute something to the board.”

In Orange County, board members pay an annual $500 board fee and are expected to meet other financial commitments throughout the year, such as sponsorships of special events, Ruan said.

“Those are made very clear before you get on the board,” she added. “My development director and I will meet with new board members to go over board governance and the financial commitments.”

The DCBF tries to find members for its 11-person board who have expertise in different areas, so they are able to handle the range of concerns a foundation has, Jarratt said.  

“We ask our staff members to name two or three people who would be the perfect advisor” in a given area, such as IOLTA accounts or communications, she explained. Board members are expected to make annual financial gifts to the foundation; members of the Young Lawyers Network Leadership Council are also expected to donate.

Avoiding potential conflict

One concern for foundations that make grants to other organizations is whether a member of the foundation board is also a member of the board of a grant recipient, and might attempt to steer funding to that recipient.

“In a lot of our committees, that can be a challenge for people who are interested in the kinds of issues that our foundations deal with,” and who may be members of other boards of organizations that deal in those areas, Derrico said. “How are you managing the fact that some of your board members may also be on other organizations?”

Jarratt said the DCBF has a conflict of interest form that everyone, including staff, must complete. “You have to disclose financial relationships with other boards you might be on,” she added. While that is helpful, Jarratt said she would like to see the checks go further, and for the board to contain members who are not part of the legal aid community.

In Tulsa, the bar foundation uses what Gotwals called the “smell test.” Except if it were a project that was clearly in keeping with the foundation’s priorities, it would not be a good idea to spend foundation money on “a lawyer’s pet project,” he explained—and such proposals often give off a fairly unmistakable whiff of being ones to avoid.

(Note: For more information on bar foundation best practices, please consult Ruan's handouts from this plenary, and Derrico's slides from a related workshop program.)