Trustees are those Individuals who volunteer to assume the legal obligations of managing an organization or institution that operates in the public trust. Knowledgeable and influential people, trustees come together to ensure that an organization is run efficiently, ethically, and true to its mission. Trusteeship is important because boards of trustees 1) allow for individual and group participation in creating the common good. 2) act as filters in determining which issues are important, and, 3)


Trustees are those Individuals who volunteer to assume the legal obligations of managing an organization or institution that operates in the public trust. Trustees are knowledgeable and influential people-often members of the local community-who come together to ensure that an organization is run efficiently, ethically, and true to its mission. These individuals can be elected or appointed and "serve the long-term welfare of the institution and help resolve current issues and conflicts in light of a broader perspective" (Smith 1981, 56). While trustees usually have a standing connection to the institution they are asked to serve, the men and women who serve as trustees often "claim no special competence" in the area they are serving (Zwingle 1980, 15). So, for example, one does not have to be a professor to be an effective trustee of a college or university. What is needed is a clear understanding of the aims and purposes of the institution. Typical types of organizations with trustee boards include nonprofit organizations, civic organizations, hospitals, museums, and educational institutions.

Historic Roots

Higher education has been an arena in the history of intellectual and cultural life in the United States where the tradition of lay trusteeship has figured prominently. Early colleges needed boards of trustees because the pool of staff and faculty members was too young, inexperienced, and undereducated to assume an oversight role as well as complete the daily tasks of the institution (Taylor 1988). It is also important to note that the system of trusteeship that coalesced in the colonial era helped to manage competing interests and ensured that no one faction dominated a college.

Educational leaders in the U.S. looked to European precedents in adopting a system of trusteeship. External boards of control had operated in Italian city-states as early as the twelfth century and in the Netherlands and Scotland after the Protestant Reformation; these citizen groups helped to regulate educational and religious institutions and policies (Zwingle 1980). However, according to Robert Greenleaf, financier J. P. Morgan was likely "the first trustee in the modern sense" in the United States (1991, 98). Though Morgan-a wealthy industrialist at the turn of the nineteenth century-tended to crave power and encourage monopolies in his practice of issuing certified financial statements about the companies he acquired, he demonstrated the following characteristics of the modern trustee:

(1) He had considerable power over the institutions, (2) he was not part of the administration . (3) he used some of his power to influence moves towards excellence, and (4) he had the good sense to know that neither the power of money nor ideas would change things without exceptional people to lead these new institutions. (Ibid.)

According to Taylor, trustee boards continue to exist because "the system has been so thoroughly institutionalized in law and tradition that it cannot easily be supplanted" (1988, 2). However, a less fatalistic explanation is that trustee boards have allowed organizations to grow and change with the times. According to Zwingle, it was the lay boards at colonial colleges that allowed for the exploration of new democratic ideals and the resolution of internal conflict without undue influence from or competition within the senior faculty. "The pattern was set: the beneficiaries of the trust, in contrast to Oxford and Cambridge's senior fellows, could not themselves serve as trustees of the trust" (1980, 16).


The concept of trusteeship is important for three main reasons. First, boards of trustees allow for individual and group participation in creating the common good. Second, they act as filters in determining which issues are important. Last, they provide a system of checks and balances within an organization.

Because trustees hold tremendous power in overseeing the welfare of an institution or organization, the process of tapping candidates to serve as trustees and an individual's decision to accept a position on a governing board are both important decisions. The responsibility for an organization's daily administrative tasks can be delegated to staff, but the ultimate responsibility for making sure the institution performs well remains with the trustees. As Robert Greenleaf described, trustees ensure that an organization is fulfilling its mission and striving to address "the needs of all constituencies - including society at large. They are the holders of the charter of public trust for the institution" (Greenleaf 1991, 97).

It is possible for anyone to become a trustee of an organization if he or she is concerned and passionate about the issues at hand, since no special skills are required. "Trustees are not officers of administration. . . Trustees are members and representatives of the general public whose trust they hold" (Ibid., 94). What is required is that trustees do not act in their own self-interest or from an administrative stance; rather, they bring a more global view to strategic planning, problem solving, and resource allocation.

There are diverse reasons for accepting the mantle of trusteeship. Individuals most often choose to serve as trustees in order to (1) be responsive to call for serving a cause or institution championed by someone whom they respect and admire, (2) demonstrate a deep commitment to an organization and their belief that its cause will endure, (3) give back to an organization and society that supported their personal success, and/or (4) take on a respected, challenging, and stimulating project (Ingram 1993).

By focusing on strategic planning and setting goals, trustees determine what issues are important for an organization and lay the foundation for success. "Boards are viewed as a means of representing the broadly defined public interest in [an institution] by simultaneously shielding the institution from shortsighted external pressure and ensuring that parochial internal interests are not served at the expense of essential societal needs" (Taylor 1988, 1). Members of the board cannot get caught up in petty politics or focus too narrowly on areas of personal interest.

Finally, trusteeship mirrors the American form of government by locating power and decision-making responsibility in the hands of a few who are sworn to protect the interests of the larger society. "Governing boards have proven their value in the U.S. version of participatory democracy, which is averse to monopoly of power and which provides systems of checks and balances" (Ingram 1993, 3).

Boards of trustees fulfill a number of specific leadership and support roles. These include (1) providing a legal foundation for existence, (2) counseling the organization's top administrators, (3) making sure money is spent wisely, (4) directing the organization's long-term plans, (5) making sure everyday activities help achieve long-range plans, (6) supporting and raising funds for the organization, (7) acting as the organization's ultimate conscience, (8) helping to resolve conflicts, and (9) providing the continuity and history an organization needs to continue improving (Waldo 1986).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Trusteeship is a key aspect of philanthropy. It is through the organization of volunteers into assistive governing bodies that many individuals are given an opportunity to serve both community and personal interests. An external board lends legitimacy to issues facing an organization and the overall community of which it is a part. Individual trustees provide necessary financial contributions as well as spread good will for the organization. Further, trusteeship teaches citizens that there is more to the world than individual need. It also helps ensure that corporate and/or self-interested influences are muted. It is always key for the trustee to remember that the "power lies in the board as a whole", not in the individual (Smith 1981, 61).

Key Related Ideas

Ethics : A process of decision-making that is considerate of codes of conduct and moral judgments of a group, religion, or culture.

Fundraising : The process by which groups and individuals collect money to support an organization or program. For more information, see "Philanthropic Fundraising" and "Special Event Fundraising" papers at

Nonprofit organizations : A group formed for the "purpose of serving the public or mutual benefit other than the pursuit or accumulation of profits for owners and investors" (Luckert "Definition and Examples").

Servant leadership : A leadership theory, popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf, that centers leaders serving their organization by listening to and understanding issues before responding with answers and solutions.

Stewardship : The act of carrying responsibility for an organization or program with a sense of its history and a commitment to preserving its mission, purposes, or resources for future generations.

Strategic planning : A process by which organizations and programs create a vision, purpose, and goals from which all future decisions about the organization or program are made.

Volunteer motivation : The process by which individuals who give their time to an organization are recognized and rewarded for their efforts; this encouragement is given in hopes that the individual will to continue and/or expand their involvement.

Important People Related to the Topic

Robert K. Greenleaf (1904 -1990): Developed and advocated his theory of servant leadership while working in the corporate sector. His philosophy of management and leadership critically examined who had power, why they had power, and how they used it. In 1964, he founded the Center for Applied Ethics, Inc., which was renamed for him in 1985. The Robert K. Greenleaf Center is located in Indianapolis, Indiana, and strives to promote caring and quality organizations engaged in servant leadership. These organizations emphasize "increased service to others, a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community, and the sharing of power in decision-making" (Greenleaf 1991).

Richard T. Ingram (1941 - ): Received his Ed.D. in 1969 from the University of Maryland and has spent over thirty years researching and consulting on the issues of trusteeship, administration, and planning. Ingram currently serves as president of the Association of Governing Boards for Colleges and Universities. He is a founding member of United Educators Insurance Risk Retention Group, Inc. He served as trustee of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; the Connelly School in Potomac, Maryland; and the University of Charleston in West Virginia. Dr. Ingram joined the Association of Governing Boards staff in 1971 and has conducted workshops and retreats for boards and officers of many nonprofit organizations.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Most nonprofit, education and civic organizations are governed by volunteer trustees. These trustees can act as a strong and well-organized group to shape policy, or may primarily serve as figureheads and fundraisers. The following is a brief and incomplete list of sample organizations with Boards of Trustees from the key areas discussed in this paper:

Arts: The Detroit Institute of the Arts, Detroit, Michigan (visit at ).

Education: Indiana University Board of Trustees Office, Bloomington, Indiana (visit at ).

Hospitals: Van Buren County Hospital Trustees, Douds, Iowa (visit at ).

Related Web Sites

Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges Web site , at , provides training and support to trustees and administrators at colleges and universities.

Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership Web site , at , provides a background on the leadership philosophy of servant-leadership and research and resources available on the topic.

Museum Trustee Association Web site is a site for trustees of museums. Its goal is to provide education, services, and resources for the nearly 75,000 museum trustees. Visit at .

Premier Web site provides information on the healthcare alliance of more than 1500 hospitals and healthcare facilities. The site contains health resources, a news service, and information on current legal and legislative issues. Available at

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Greenleaf, Robert K. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness . New York: Paulist Press, 1991. ISBN: 0809125277.

Herman, Robert D., and Jon Van Til. Nonprofit Boards of Directors . New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1989. ISBN: 0887382169.

Ingram, Richard. Handbook of College and University Trusteeship . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1980. ISBN: 087589450X.

------. Governing Independent Colleges and Universities . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993. ISBN: 1555425674.

Luckert, Kate. "Definition and Examples of Nonprofit Organizations." Learning to Give. .

Smith, David H. Entrusted: The Moral Responsibilities of Trusteeship . Bloomington, IN and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0253353319.

Smith, Joyce A. "A View From the Board of Trustees." In New Directions for Community Colleges: Women in Community Colleges (1981): 34, 55-66. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Taylor, Barbara E. "Working With Trustees." ERIC Digest . January 1, 1988.

Waldo, Charles. A Working Guide for Directors of Not-for-Profit Organizations . New York: Quorum Books, 1986. ISBN: 089930091X.

Zwingle, J. L. "Evolution of Lay Governing Boards." In Handbook of College and University Trusteeship , 14-26. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1980. ISBN: 087589450X.

-----. "Women Scarce As Trustees, But Bringing a New Priority," Women in Higher Education 3 (April 1994): 4.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.