News and analysis
October 01, 2014

20% of Grant Makers Pay Trustee Fees, Study Finds

Slightly more than one in five grant makers pays board members, according to new data.

The study revealed that each organization is paying all of its trustees, in total, a median of $71,438.

In addition, the study found that 5.2 percent pay the chairman of the board.

The median aggregate compensation for all paid trustees at the largest foundations —those with assets in the $1-billion to $2-billion range—is $290,500.

Among all types of grant makers, public foundations—those nonprofits that both give grants and raise money—pay their trustees the most, an aggregate median of $198,100. Among all regions of the country, grant makers in the West were most generous, paying their trustees an aggregate median of $109,000.

The 2014 data collected from more than 1,000 U.S. grant makers, was compiled by the Council on Foundations.

Board Pay Benchmarks

Trustee compensation can be a tricky issue. While it is legal for grant makers to pay their boards, excessive or unreasonable compensation could violate federal and state laws that were enacted decades ago to ensure foundations were using most of their money for charitable purposes.

Questions about what is reasonable are now drawing national attention, in part because of complaints about payments to the Bremer Foundation’s trustees. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy asked the Minnesota attorney general why two trustees increased their pay by 1,000 percent over nine years.

Foundations pay close attention to the laws governing board pay, says Tonia Bain, the council’s project manager for research, and that is one of the reasons the organization decided to include such information in its annual survey for the first time.

"We get a lot of inquiries every year about board pay, so we know this information is important to our members," says Ms. Bain. "It’s important for grant makers to be able to see what’s appropriate compensation in their own field, so if they wanted to compensate, they would have the tools to help set reasonable levels."

The survey also looked at foundation salaries. Among the findings:

  • The median salary for chief executives and presidents at community foundations is $124,373.
  • Chief executives of corporate foundations earn a median of $175,000.
  • The median salary for heads of private foundations is $192,000.
  • Leaders of operating foundations receive median salaries of $270,833.

This article has been corrected from an earlier version to indicate that the median amounts paid to board members is the total paid to all trustees at an organization.

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.