Don’t Let a Transition Slow Your Mission Impact
Transitions are a part of life in a nonprofit. According the American Council on Education, the average college or university president serves 7 years. Also, the average tenure has been decreasing. The average tenure for a nonprofit CEO/executive director is even shorter, and some studies report that the average tenure in a development position is less than 3 years.
Effective nonprofit organizations plan for the inevitable transitions!
Here are three ongoing ways:
- Have a back-up for every role. No one is indispensable. Whatever the function, cross-train and have plans for someone else in the organization to perform that function in the event of a transition or extended absence.
- Be sure you have transition plans in place and succession planning to know how you will handle a transition before you face it.
- Develop a strategic plan, implement it and regularly monitor it. This and budget and operational plans should guide and direct your organization, regardless of whom is CEO or board chair. It is not about a person—it is about your mission!
When you have a transition of a CEO:
• Implement your transition plans and appoint an interim CEO. In higher education and other organizations, there are highly qualified former presidents willing to serve on an interim basis. These leaders are often more than caretakers; they address issues that may have been lingering, so the next CEO can be more effective from day one.
• Be sure that board leaders resist the temptation to get involved operationally. In one recent example, we saw a board chair not engaging the interim CEO and senior staff in many key conversations and functioning far too much like a CEO. This crippled the organization’s progress during the transition.
• Unless there is a key issue, fully empower the interim/acting CEO and senior staff to continue functioning. To ensure communication, make sure that there are weekly updates between the CEO and board chair and monthly updates with senior staff and the executive committee.
• Carefully select a search firm and be aware of any biases they may bring. I recently met with a client’s search firm and their lead consultant (on his first visit outside the presentation to be hired) shared with me that they did not need someone like one of their previous CEOs, and the board and senior staff were weak.
The CEO that he cited saved the organization from bankruptcy and led a remarkable turnaround. When I challenged the search consultant, he stared at me blankly while his local associate confirmed what I had shared. There were some board issues. However, several of the senior staff were quite strong and needed to be empowered. The firm also promoted that the organization stand still during what would be a 5-month search process (and 10-month period between CEOs)—instead of continuing progress, so that the new CEO could step into a much stronger position. A search firm should focus on the search.
• When considering candidates, ask if they have a past relationship with the search firm. There are a few firms known for moving around key friends (most often former/current clients). Any firm should reach out to leaders who are not on the job market.
• Take advantage of resources if your organization is a part of a larger, national organization. And, if you need a reset, consider candidates from outside that organization.
• If the search firm doesn’t provide candidate assessments, consider hiring a corporate psychologist (independent from the search firm) to prepare assessments of your final candidate or finalists—this can help you avoid a major mistake.
• Continue pressing ahead with your strategic plan and other priorities. No organization can afford to lose momentum and be on hold for 6 months or longer.
• Keep your key constituents informed—especially major donors—throughout the search and transition process.
Don’t let a transition impede your progress. Momentum is everything. Have plans in place so that you can maximize the benefits of inevitable transitions.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.