Shortly after I was hired as the President/CEO, founding board Chairman Dr. Harry Jonas asked me to contact several relatively new foundations around the country to find out what mistakes they made in their start-up years, and what things they did early on that they found successful. I was pleasantly surprised with how open other foundation executives were in sharing their views, especially when I asked what they would do differently if they could start-up their foundations all over again.
The number one topic that came up in every interview was that foundation executives wished they had spent more time in board discussions on their internal governance documents—bylaws, values statements, grant making and conflict of interest/ethics policy —before they started giving out their first grants. They all told me that as a new foundation, there is a lot of pressure to focus board and associate time on getting the first grants out the door as soon as possible. They wished they had spent more time making sure the internal governance documents were sound. They told me changing governances policies after grantmaking had started was more difficult than to make sure you had the right policies in place before grantmaking ever started.
When I reported these findings to our board, they took this candid advice to heart. HCF started our grantmaking in June 2005 and for the six months that preceded this event, the board and associates spent countless meetings in discussions about the HCF governance documents. We refined our bylaws and added a new section to the bylaws that described in detail our board and associate conflict of interest/ethics policy that would significantly impact our grant-making process and our foundation culture. We repeatedly went over every word in our HCF values statement to make sure the words formed concepts we really believed in, and we were ready to stand by if/when these values were challenged. This document also had a significant impact on our grant-making process and culture as the years went by.
The HCF ethics policy requires every board member, associate and Community Advisory Committee (CAC) member to complete a listing of their potential business and community conflicts, not only for themselves but also for the spouses, children, grandchildren and parents. These conflict forms are placed on the board table at every board meeting. Also, board members, associates, or CAC members with a conflict are not allowed to be in the room when their agency/nonprofit is being discussed for possible funding, and they can never discuss the pending proposals with any non-conflicted board member, associate or CAC member.
These bylaws and conflict of interest/ethics policy has been repeatedly featured at Grantmakers in Health national meetings as exemplary examples for other foundations to consider implementing.
It is my hope that HCF is considered to be a transparent and honorable foundation where agencies who apply for funding feel as though they are treated with respect, dignity and fairness. Anything else would not be consistent with the intent of our bylaws.
These bylaws, values statement and conflict of interest/ethics policy have served HCF well for 10 years. The HCF board should be praised for their thoughtful and compassionate approach to grantmaking and for taking this bold, ethical approach.