Balancing Act: Weighing the Pros and Cons of D&O Insurance for Private Foundations

by: Kyle Anderson
September 8, 2023
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Navigating indemnification and acquiring Directors and Officers (D&O) liability insurance presents a significant challenge for boards of directors, trustees, and foundation managers. The intertwining of complex tax code language with detailed insurance terms can lead to considerable confusion.

While the decision to carry D&O insurance isn't straightforward, it's a crucial aspect of risk management for private foundations. This insurance provides vital financial protection for board members and officers, ensuring they are shielded from personal liability in the event of alleged wrongful acts during their service. In this article, we'll explore the nuances of D&O insurance, its coverage, and why it's a prudent consideration for organizations.

In practice, the likelihood of a foundation carrying D&O insurance often aligns with the size of its asset base. Foundations with an endowment exceeding $500 million are nearly certain to provide this coverage, while those with less than a $5 million endowment have a much lower likelihood, hovering around 20%. In the subsequent sections, we'll delve into the intricacies of D&O insurance, its coverage, and why it should be thoughtfully considered.

Understanding D&O Insurance

D&O insurance is distinct from general liability insurance as it excludes claims related to bodily injury or property damage. D&O insurance can be aptly characterized as mismanagement coverage. Its primary purpose is to cover the associated attorney fees and court costs incurred in response to covered perils. When we exclude cases involving bodily injury and property damage, the number of lawsuits directed at private foundations tends to be quite limited. Furthermore, private foundations often emerge victorious or reach settlements in these cases. However, it's important to recognize that even in successful outcomes, the legal costs involved can be substantial.

In essence, a typical D&O policy is designed to protect against damages arising from a "wrongful act." This term is broadly defined and encompasses any breach of duty, instances of neglect, errors, misstatements, misleading statements, omissions, or any other wrongful acts committed or attempted. However, it's important to note that bodily injury and property damage claims are not included.

Different Types of Coverage

There are various types of D&O policies, each covering different individuals. The most limited type covers only directors and officers, excluding the foundation. The broadest coverage is provided by an "association-type" policy, which encompasses officers, directors, the foundation itself, employees, trustees, volunteers, and committee members. This policy can also protect the foundation's assets by covering legal expenses upfront in certain cases.

Certain actions are consistently excluded by all D&O insurance policies. These include situations involving bodily injury and property damage, intentional and dishonest acts, criminal activities, violations of state laws leading to fines or penalties, as well as issues related to pollution and nuclear waste. Additionally, there are other exclusions that may vary depending on the specific policy. These are categorized as frequently excluded scenarios, which encompass matters like libel, slander, and false imprisonment, cases involving employment discrimination or wrongful termination, conflicts where one director sues another, failure to uphold appropriate insurance coverage, and instances where punitive damages may apply.

Caution with Policy Selection

Some policies may appear to cover directors, officers, and the foundation itself. However, a closer look might reveal that the section covering the foundation only reimburses it for payments obligated to indemnify its officers and directors. This means it doesn't cover the foundation's legal expenses in a lawsuit. It's crucial to verify that a policy offers association-type coverage.

When it comes to liability, there's a noteworthy distinction between being a trustee and a director, and it hinges on the organizational structure of the foundation. Nonprofit corporations, which are the prevalent choice nowadays, operate with a board of directors. On the other hand, private foundations established under state trust laws are overseen by trustees. While there has been a recent trend towards aligning liability standards, certain states may still uphold certain distinctions. Therefore, if your organization functions as a trust, it's advisable to seek legal counsel to grasp the specific standards. This distinction in organizational structures can have significant implications for how D&O insurance can protect a foundation.

Assessing the Necessity of D&O Insurance

While lawsuits against foundations are rare, the likelihood of facing a claim is increasing. Even seemingly frivolous suits must be defended, incurring significant legal and court costs. State regulators are also placing greater emphasis on directors' fiduciary responsibilities. Just as organizations wouldn't operate without general liability and fire insurance, D&O insurance is increasingly seen as essential for protecting against potentially costly claims, especially for large organizations. It is also worth noting that there is a growing tendency on the part of individuals contemplating service on the board of directors of a foundation to request such insurance as a condition of service. As a general rule of thumb, the larger your organization and the greater its endowment, there is a greater necessity for carrying D&O insurance.

Any foundation with a large endowment has “deep pockets” and is automatically an attractive target for an injured party’s lawyer to pursue. The foundation may have enough assets available to protect the director through indemnification, but the prudent director should be interested in protecting the endowment as well. If an association-type policy is available at a reasonable price, it may well be worth obtaining.

Making Informed Decisions

When it comes to deciding on whether to obtain Directors and Officers (D&O) insurance, there are several crucial considerations. It is very hard to draw a clear red line between the foundations that really should have D&O coverage and those that should not. Factors such as the size of the organization, its staff, grants, investments, and contractual obligations all come into play. Larger organizations with extensive operations inherently face greater risks, potentially justifying the need for D&O insurance.

Undoubtedly, the size and operational scale of your organization play a pivotal role in assessing potential exposure to claims. Factors such as staff size, grant activity, the level of controversy surrounding grants, investments, and contractual engagements all contribute to this risk profile. Conversely, smaller foundations with minimal office presence, a modest staff, limited contractual obligations, and fewer investments may perceive the likelihood of a claim as exceedingly remote, potentially deeming the cost of D&O insurance unnecessary.

Of course, the cost factor is paramount. While a $10 million policy priced at $1 annually would be an obvious choice for anyone, a $100,000 per year premium prompts a more considered evaluation. In such cases, it might well be argued that a strategy of providing indemnification could prove more cost-effective in the long run. Each foundation, in collaboration with its legal advisors and risk assessment experts, must conduct a thorough examination of its specific circumstances. This includes a comprehensive evaluation of potential liability, a survey of available D&O insurance options, and a meticulous cost-benefit analysis to make an informed decision.

Industry sources in the insurance sector highlight that a significant portion of lawsuits directed at private foundations are related to employment issues. Often, it involves current or former employees alleging unfair treatment, such as wrongful termination or being passed over for promotions they believe they were entitled to. Claims of discrimination based on factors like sex, race, or age are also common. In general, organizations with a larger workforce are at a higher risk for such lawsuits.

Given this landscape, it's essential to carefully weigh the cost of insurance against the potential risks and benefits involved in obtaining D&O coverage.

Arguments For D&O Insurance:

1. Legal Protection: D&O insurance provides vital financial protection for board members and officers, shielding them from personal liability in the event of alleged wrongful acts during their service. This legal safeguard can be invaluable.

2. Recruitment and Retention: D&O insurance can make it more attractive for competent candidates to join the board. This enhances governance and decision-making by bringing in experienced individuals who might otherwise hesitate due to potential personal risk.

3. Risk Mitigation: Even with the best practices in place, legal challenges can arise. D&O insurance mitigates these risks by covering legal defense costs, and sometimes settlements, or judgments, allowing leaders to focus on their responsibilities. D&O insurance provides a critical layer of protection in such cases and safeguards the foundation's financial resources for its charitable activities.

4. Compliance and Reputation: In some jurisdictions, D&O insurance may be legally required for nonprofit organizations. Adhering to such requirements helps maintain the foundation's reputation and tax-exempt status.

5. Empowering Effective Decision-Making: Knowing they have the protection of D&O insurance empowers board members and officers to make well-informed decisions without fear of personal financial repercussions. This can lead to more effective governance and decision-making.

Arguments Against D&O Insurance:

1. Resource Allocation: D&O insurance can be expensive, especially for smaller foundations with limited resources. Some argue that the funds spent on insurance premiums could be better used to support the foundation's charitable activities directly.

2. Unnecessary for Small Foundations: Smaller foundations may argue that they are less likely to face lawsuits due to their size and scope, making D&O insurance an unnecessary expense.

3. Effective Governance: Proponents of not having D&O insurance may contend that effective governance and adherence to best practices can significantly reduce the risk of legal challenges, negating the need for such coverage.

4. Limited Historical Liability Incidents: Foundations with a long-standing history of sound governance and a clean track record of no prior legal issues may question the necessity of D&O insurance. They might argue that their exemplary track record demonstrates their commitment to responsible leadership, making insurance coverage less critical.

5. Public Trust: While transparency and accountability are vital, some may argue that the public's trust in a foundation should be based on ethical leadership and responsible governance rather than the presence of insurance.

It's essential for private foundations to weigh these arguments carefully and make an informed decision regarding D&O insurance. Each foundation's unique circumstances, size, and risk profile should factor into the evaluation of whether D&O insurance is a necessary safeguard or a potentially unnecessary expense.

Risk Minimization Strategies:

To mitigate potential liability, it's essential for board members to prioritize fulfilling their responsibilities to the foundation and establishing robust management systems. This encompasses educating both board members and staff on effective risk management practices and developing procedures for handling situations where liabilities may arise.

Understanding fiduciary duties is a cornerstone for board members. As fiduciaries, they are entrusted with the organization's well-being, requiring them to act in good faith and with the same level of care that a prudent person would apply. Additionally, fiduciaries must maintain fairness in their dealings with the foundation, particularly in cases of potential conflicts of interest.

The decision-making process of the board holds great significance. Entities like the IRS, attorneys general, and judges may scrutinize board members' adherence to fiduciary standards. This scrutiny involves assessing whether directors were well-informed, critically evaluated available information, and allowed ample time for informed decisions.

To help mitigate risk, board members should consider the following steps:

1. Regularly attend a significant portion of board and committee meetings. If attendance becomes challenging, it may be prudent to reassess board membership.

2. Ensure the organization's established purpose, as outlined in its founding documents, remains clear and consistently adhered to.

3. Thoroughly review the bylaws for compliance with state statutes governing private foundations, and consider involving legal counsel for expert guidance. Enforce the bylaws, as actions contrary to state laws or established bylaws can potentially lead to legal disputes.

4. Implement a written conflict of interest policy that aligns with state statutes, providing a framework for fair and transparent dealings.

5. Thoughtfully review financial statements, budget proposals, and other reports. Inquire about any noticeable inconsistencies or issues in the reports, and take proactive steps to address them.

6. Keep accurate and comprehensive records of board decisions and the decision-making process, which includes documenting discussions and votes, particularly on contentious topics.

7. Seek expert advice when navigating complex matters, leveraging specialized knowledge to inform decision-making.


Making the decision to acquire D&O insurance for private foundations is a nuanced process, requiring a careful evaluation of risks, available resources, and the organization's unique circumstances. While the costs may seem overly-high for some, the protection it affords to board members and officers cannot be overlooked. By aligning thoughtful risk management strategies with a well-considered insurance policy, foundations can confidently navigate the intricacies of governance. Regardless of a foundation's size or scope, a thorough assessment of its risk profile and financial capacity is essential in determining whether D&O insurance is a prudent safeguard or an unnecessary expense.

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