Jeanne C. Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits
Planning for a successful executive transition is a critical component of strategic planning for all organizations, and is key to sustainability. This article series explores the steps and roles to assure successful transitions; challenges that arise and how to be adaptive; approaches when long-time and founding executives leave versus when the executive is no longer a good fit for the organization; when and how to use a search firm; and how to infuse equity throughout the transition process.
To make preparations does not spoil the trip. –Guinean proverb
Executive transitions are inevitable. Yet, so few nonprofits have a plan. When I did an internet search on “executive transitions,” I found hundreds of reference points. There is no shortage of information on the subject. Yet in a 2017 survey, the Council on Accreditation found that only 27% of nonprofits plan for their executive to leave, and their 2020 report reiterated that, “Few nonprofit organizations are prepared for the transition of executive leadership that is coming and the impact it will have on their mission.”
We recognize that most executives plan to be with their organization for an indefinite period, and underestimate the need to be explicit and transparent about the succession planning process. I know firsthand that this is true because I experienced this as a co-founding executive director. However, one day I asked myself this serious question: what happens to my organization that I grew from infancy to what it has become today, if I do not plan? Answering this helped me realize the responsibility I had to the organization to sustain it past my tenure.
So many people within our community and faith organizations - employees, volunteers and board members - all contribute to their success and deserve to have their work continued. As executives, we need to be able to turn to our boards of directors, especially our board chairs, to make both short- and long-term plans possible.
It does not mean that we have to give a timeframe to our leaving. Rather, we face the inevitable that we will one day be leaving (reality check) and that we want our organization’s mission to supersede our own interests. “A nonprofit organization’s current CEO has a responsibility of putting the greater good of the organization and its mission in front of the needs of the individual.” (Change is Inevitable: Executive Leadership Transition, Council on Accreditation)
Throughout my tenure at the Center, I have appreciated our board chair’s role in working with me as a partner in setting directions with a high level of strategic planning. Together with the board, we work as a team to determine our overall direction, including multi-year goals. In addition, our board chairs have been supportive of my role in managing the organization’s daily functions as we turn our higher-level goals into reality.
With this healthy organizational culture, we have also been open in our communications about planning for my transition and successor. This is not to say that I am setting a date for retirement; it is to say that I have experienced a transition into a new organization and appreciate the process and the work needed to make it successful. With the board chair and full board open to the conversation, we are able to set realistic and shared goals for the organization’s future. This includes short- and long-term succession planning. As a result, I am working with my board to integrate both into my goals for the next few years.
“The best nonprofit transition plans are comprehensive documents developed with an eye towards the organization’s future. These plans are typically created as a team effort among the highest-ranking staff and are subject to board approval. Depending on the nature of your nonprofit, your executive transition plan will look different than another organization’s plan.” From this article, 5 Expert Steps for a Nonprofit Executive Transition Plan, I have found thoughtful and practical guidance on creating our succession plan. While every plan will be different, the article points out that there are several key areas that all nonprofits should consider:
- Understand the role of executive director at your nonprofit.
- Align vision with your board as the executive transition plan is crafted.
- Develop executive transition plans for all types of departures.
- Cultivate internal leaders as part of your nonprofit executive transition plan.
- Select your new executive leader and finalize the transition.
“Finding the right new leader to guide your nonprofit through these challenging times should be your nonprofit’s first concern. Whether your team is anticipating the departure of a beloved executive director or wants to prepare for an unexpected resignation, it’s time your team crafted an airtight nonprofit executive transition plan.” (5 Expert Steps for a Nonprofit Executive Transition Plan, Aly Sterling Philanthropy)
Read other articles in this Successful Executive Transitions series: Embracing the Inevitable and The Short-Term Plan and Succession Planning in a Time of Uncertainty and From the Desk of an Interim President/CEO and EDI and the Executive Search
For more guidance on executive transitions, talk one-on-one with an expert through our Executive Transitions Pro Bono Program, and visit Information Central for resources and templates.