In a 2013 paper titled, “The Leadership in Leaving,” Frances Kunreuther, Phyllis Segal, and Stephanie Clohesy, write:
Estimates suggest that up to 75% of U.S. nonprofit leaders are planning to leave their positions in the next five to ten years. With over 1 million nonprofits and philanthropic institutions, the implications of the expected turnover are enormous. By even a modest estimate, a half-million executives may exit their positions over the next 15 years.
There are myriad reasons why a nonprofit might contemplate a change in executive leadership. Strengthening its programs to better meet the needs of beneficiaries or bolstering organizational effectiveness may require leaders with different experience and competencies. Or, long-time leaders may simply be ready to leave, as was our case. No matter the impetus for change, nonprofit organizations have a tremendous amount at stake when transitioning to a new executive, and even contemplating succession can be intimidating.
Like many nonprofit leaders nearing the time to pass the torch, we—as founders and co-presidents of a thriving children’s advocacy organization for 22 years—were daunted by the hard questions, additional burdens, and emotional risks we faced in recruiting a new leader for our organization. But we started down the path, and now, after a year and a half, we’ve completed an organizational readiness initiative and executive transition.
Along the way, we found several approaches particularly helpful to us as long-time executives facilitating a transition while still running our organization day to day:
1. Fully unpack the decision. Deciding to undergo a leadership transition can be a delicate process. Executives must balance organizational needs with personal ones and assess the impact on a multitude of important stakeholders. Moreover, every organization, every board, and every leader faces his or her own set of circumstances. We spent several months “mapping” our assets and challenges, and developing an inventory of “givens” and “unknowns.” “Givens,” for example, included the fact that we were a cross-country, virtual organization; there were two of us (one part-time); and we could be flexible on timing. To develop the “unknowns” (so that we could best prepare the organization for a new leader and position it to attract the right talent), we felt strongly that we needed a current, independent assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. We enlisted a well-respected management consulting firm to undertake a “landscape assessment” based on interviews with partners, policymakers, funders, board members, and staff. We then contracted with a highly experienced nonprofit executive to help us turn the results into a concrete action plan with a detailed timetable and budget.
2. Make the transition a launch pad. By asking the question, “Who would be an ideal leader for our organization over the next decade?” instead of “How do we replace ourselves?” we kept the transition efforts on our mission and the future of our work, as well as on practical decisions to help identify a new leader who would fit that description. As we began to develop the executive job description, for example, we encountered different viewpoints about what attributes a successful candidate would have. It was easy to list functional attributes: excellent spokesperson, good fundraiser, recognized expert in the field, accomplished executive. But when we drilled down, we realized the truly “must-have” qualities were those of a skilled advocate with strong ties in the communities we serve. We spent time with the search firm and our board engaging in these discussions, which resulted in greater consensus about the essential attributes of the new leader and real excitement when we identified a candidate who embodied those qualities.
3. Set the right tone. Executives also play an important role in how various stakeholders perceive and carry out the transition process. After we determined a new leader would benefit the organization, we recognized that our attitudes and behavior would inform the attitudes and behaviors of the board and staff, funders, and colleagues, including their willingness to collaborate and their readiness to make important decisions for the organization’s future. As we shared our thinking, we focused on the importance of the organization’s work and the need for a new generation of leaders. Our mantra was to keep all affected parties focused on our mission and the organization’s thriving future—not on us.
4. Clarify your role as you work with the board. Your board is ultimately responsible for hiring a new leader, but different boards have different ways of working with executives during a transition. In our case, our partnership with our board to facilitate the transition evolved over time. Our role came to focus on four areas:
- Defining the most important attributes of a new leader, and assisting with candidate outreach and assessment
- Providing clear and concise capacity building and transition planning for board and staff review
- Raising funds for and facilitating the process of enacting organization-strengthening changes so that we could attract a strong leader and set them up for success
- Organizing the orientation of the new president and supporting them throughout the transition
5. Engage the staff, and think creatively about leadership. We worked to engage the staff throughout the transition process. Two senior staff (along with us) served as nonvoting members on the board’s Leadership Transition Committee. And senior staff conducted meetings (without the board or executives present), interviews, and online surveys to gather staff input at various points in the transition, including what the staff thought the organization needed in a new leader. They used this input to provide direct, carefully condensed, anonymous feedback to the Leadership Transition Committee. It’s also worth considering that you may not need to transfer all the responsibilities you are carrying to a new leader. In our case, we first worked with staff to determine that there was no internal candidate for the president position. However, two of the most seasoned and accomplished staff members were ready to assume greater leadership roles. With them, we redefined their responsibilities and mentored them through new leadership opportunities, including increased authority for program and budget decisions, and more visibility as leaders both internally and externally. In addition, because we had developed a capable internal leadership bench, they were well positioned to provide strong support for the incoming president.
6. Consider a “senior advisor” approach. While we fully recognized the value a next-generation leader would bring to our organization, we felt we could still contribute unique knowledge, skills, and networks to advance its mission. “Table for Two,” an intriguing monograph written by the management consultant with whom we worked, describes leaders who, after taking some time off, stay engaged with their organization in new, clearly defined roles. After careful consideration, and well advised about potential pitfalls, we proposed to the board and incoming president that we serve in a new capacity as “senior advisors.” After a period of absence from the organization, during which the new president established herself, we began to shape the senior advisor role. During the first year, we provided a sounding board for the new president at her request, and opened doors and facilitated contacts. We also developed a special project that served both the organization and our desire to continue working on behalf of the cause. Of course, this arrangement works only if the new leader and board fully support it. There should be regular check-ins to ensure that it continues to provide value for all parties involved.
With so much at stake within individual nonprofit organizations, a forward-looking, well-executed leadership hand-off can make an enormous difference. These six insights helped us navigate uncharted waters. Now, 18 months after we passed the baton to a new president—a dedicated and accomplished advocate and who represents both next generation leadership and the community our organization seeks to serve—the work is thriving. We hope these insights can benefit others as they contemplate a leadership transition.