With the coming "Silver Tsunami" of retirements, many nonprofits are going to be losing their leadership in the next few years. A survey 501 Commons conducted in 2012 found that one-third of organizations in the state expected to have a senior leader leave in the next three years.
A Changing of the Guard
In an ideal world, leadership transitions would be planned and orderly. If an executive director is going to leave the organization, it is best to have a long lead time when staff, board, funders, and donors are in the loop about the change. This is particularly true if the executive is a founder or long-time ED/CEO. If possible, have the successor selected and in place with some overlap, so that the ED/CEO (or other senior leaders) can transition relationships as well as work duties. This may seem like an added cost, but it will pay off in the long-run.
Organizations should have a succession plan even if they do not expect the ED to be leaving the organization. Rather than protections against the ED being "hit by a bus," we prefer to think about it as insurance against the ED "winning the lottery." The succession plan is not just about what person is going to replace the ED. It is just as important to have a clear and intentional process built into how you organization does its work that ensures that there is cross training, good documentation of procedures, and ongoing involvement plans of others in the organization in relationship building and stewardship.
A great, simple reminder is that the ED is not doing their job in terms of succession any time they leave the parking lot to go to a meeting with their passenger seat empty. The great leaders of tomorrow need to be nurtured and given opportunities today.
Job #1: Board Selection of the Executive
When the time comes for a board of directors to select a first or new executive for a nonprofit, the importance of the board of directors becomes crystal clear. In order to hire well, the board needs to have the following characteristics:
- Keen understanding of the organization's mission, programs, and business model
- Awareness of the organization's capacity limitations and operational challenges
- Relationships with the organization's key stakeholders (clients, partners, funders, volunteers, etc.)
- A vision of the organization's future that helps them distinguish if there is a difference between the leader needed in the past and the one needed in the future.
Executive search and human resource professionals
If the board does no have a human resources professional on the board, it would be a good idea to contract with one or recruit a qualified volunteer to help.
The board may also want to contract with an executive search firm. You can find those recommended by nonprofits through our Consultants & Other Nonprofit Specialists page under the "Human Resources - Executive Search & Recruitment" categories. A search firm will help the board define what characteristics and background it is looking for and will recruit applicants meeting that criteria. The firm will also help the organization in the selection, hiring, and onboarding process.
A third type of support available to board is interim management.
Interim executive directors
If this type of transition is not possible for your organization, never fear—there are nonprofit specialists on hand to fill in whether the transition is sudden or planned. Bringing in an interim executive director (ED) when the sitting ED is on a leave of absence, retires, resigns, or is asked to leave, is a common and effective practice. And it’s not hard to find an experienced interim. We list many experienced and recommended interims through the Consultants & Other Nonprofit Specialists page under "Interim Management."
An experienced interim knows how to manage in ways that are different from a caretaker or just a temporary ED/CEO. A professional interim will bring new management skills, including assessment and evaluation skills and tools; a willingness to call attention to an organization's underlying problems; and recommended changes in structure, roles, or positions in order to optimize the organization's impact. To learn more about working with an interim, read our page on Interim Executive Director