Five Questions for Barry Mills, Senior Advisor to BBH

January 26, 2022
Barry Mills, former president of Bowdoin College, shares some of his more important lessons for endowments and foundations as they seek to navigate the challenges and opportunities present in 2022.

As of November 2022, Barry Mills is no longer a Senior Advisor to BBH.

IV: Tell us about your professional background. What drew you to working with endowments and foundations?

My primary professional background is as an attorney and I was a lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City from 1979-2001 with a practice in real estate, corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions. In the early 1990s, I joined the Board of Trustees of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. In 2000, I was appointed by the board to lead the search for a new college president but was drafted by the board to become president of the school instead. An interesting side note for your readers: prior to attending law school, I received a PhD in biology.

I was the president of Bowdoin College until I retired in 2015. From 2016-2018, I was also affiliated with University of Massachusetts Boston , serving as Interim Chancellor for one year. I currently serve on foundation and nonprofit boards and advise presidents and boards of nonprofits and for profit organizations. Most recently, I also joined BBH as a Senior Advisor to work with nonprofits, foundations and individual clients on endowment, philanthropic, leadership and management issues.

IV: Talk to IV readers about your approach to advising endowments and foundations. Where do you see the most need for guidance?

For every nonprofit and foundation, it as essential to understand their unique mission as well as the strategy and the tactics for success that they are employing. After all, the endowment is in service of the mission and strategy of the institution generally. Therefore, it is critical to link the goals for the endowment to the operations of the institution in order to advise on appropriate risk levels, liquidity tolerance and return requirements. And, in my experience, leadership can make or break this model. I find that there are often issues around governance and leadership where an outside perspective can be helpful. What matters most is that there is appropriate alignment between these interests – whether the endowment management is internal with a CIO or external, via an outside manager.

IV: What trends did you see emerge among endowments and foundations as they navigated the disruption experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

During the COVID period, many foundations and nonprofits re-examined their priorities to understand if some of the new and immediate challenges created by COVID could be addressed by the foundation or nonprofits, even if those ways did not necessarily fit with the ordinary course of their business pre- COVID. These considerations have led boards to consider subtle – and not so subtle – modifications to  mission and strategy to meet the perceived immediate needs of their communities (broadly construed).  Not surprisingly, these deliberations have led boards and leadership to reevaluate the appropriate levels of spending from their endowments. These conversations can be complicated and sensitive as board members think about doing business and providing supports that may be new to their organizations.

IV: What lessons did endowments and foundations learn over the past two years that they can bring with them as we head into the ‘new normal’?

I am not certain that anyone can predict what the ‘new normal’ will be across so many aspects of our lives. COVID has disrupted the way we live our lives in almost all ways! In many respects, COVID created new challenges or accelerated changes that seem destined to affect all of us, but over a longer time frame. Many nonprofits and foundations are established to support health and hospitals, K-12 education, higher education, economic development, social justice issues and child care – just to name a few. In all of these areas, we have seen disruptive change in the way that services are delivered, success is defined, and in the way we work as individuals collectively for common goals of our institutions.

Foundations and nonprofits are not insulated from these challenges in the way that they work nor in the way that the institutions or people they support will change over the near- and medium-term.  And so what I have seen in these foundations and nonprofits are the challenges of dealing with immediate issues at the “tips of skis”, while at the same time, understanding that the world around us is changing.  Foundations and nonprofits will have to change to reflect these new realities. This is challenging because we don’t know with any certainty how this change will play out in so many fields. Hence, there is more uncertainty and ambiguity about the paths forward. It is a time demanding both discipline and imagination.

IV: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for endowments and foundations right now?

The biggest challenges facing nonprofits and foundations right now include balancing the historic and important role they have played in the past with what they might do in the uncertain future. These conversations are obviously complicated, and they are fraught with economic,  institutional and personal considerations. Strong leadership, constructive and candid discussion and analysis are more important than ever.

And, then there is the “good problem” to have – the dramatic growth of endowments over the past 18 months. The benefits of this growth are obvious but the challenges should not be underestimated: figuring out whether that growth is “money good” over the long haul, what it means for liquidity, and how it affects what the foundation or nonprofit can do over the near and medium term. The attraction of building out programs in response to this dramatic  endowment growth may be hard to resist, but the uncertainty of the the future of these endowments probably calls for very thoughtful consideration and analysis before jumping in.  


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