Imagine executives from the six largest school meal programs in the country, sitting around a table discussing how, together, they could make a difference in school food. By leveraging their buying power, they can change the industry.
They decide to be the founding members of a 501(c)(3) and set off to put their passion into action. Although still volunteers, tin their respective school districts, driven by passion—not spare time or money. By quickly incorporating, filing all the necessary papers, grabbing some online bylaws, and running an election based on friendships, these founders are off to a great start.
Fast forward through seven years of passion: a few more districts join and pay membership but are ultimately considered Class B members under the bylaws and therefore unable to be elected to the Board of Directors. This causes several challenges.
To keep the organization alive and functioning, the Board needs to hire an Executive Director and potentially additional staff. But how do they do that? Who is willing to give up control? This has been their project from the beginning; they have their passionate ideas, and they don’t want to look like they have failed.
Transitioning From Passion to Professionalism
This type of transition can either propel the organization forward or be the cause of the organization’s demise. In Guide to Nonprofit Leadership, leading expert in nonprofit management Joan Garry describes the importance of setting up transitioning carefully and with thought, as “leadership transitions are the most destabilizing forces in a nonprofit organization.” To be successful, transitions must be planned, deliberate, and done in an orderly fashion. The following three steps will assist nonprofits in this activity.
Step 1: Hire an outside consultant.
This consultant should be used to train the board of directors how to work with paid staff, particularly the executive director. Using an outside consultant assists with taking emotion and personal ownership out of the process.
The outside consultant should conduct training, which should include the roles and responsibilities for the board and the executive director as well as suggestions for setting up what Garry refers to as a “co-piloting” timeline. This co-piloting can take time but should be decided upon based on the newly hired executive director’s experience and knowledge. It is very important to onboard someone new efficiently but micromanaging a new executive director is the quickest way to lose them.
Recommendation: Brainstorm a list of possible names the board of directors and other members think might be good candidates for an outside consultant. This gives the organization a starting point and begins the conversation about qualifications.
Step 2: Determine the ideal executive director’s qualifications.
The board of directors needs to determine the qualifications they are looking for to lead the organization. Identifying the roles and responsibilities of paid staff versus volunteer board members is a critical step moving forward. Without this clear communication, a lot can go wrong. This discussion needs to include a clear chain of command and direct conversation dealing with what tasks the volunteer board members will be handing off to the new paid staff. The board might choose to enlist the help of the outside consultant but should remember that the board knows the organization—and its needs—best.
Recommendation: Publish an organizational chart to visualize the flow of leadership. ). It is important to give all board members and the executive director a copy of this chart and have an open discussion to ensure all understand the flow of command and the changes that will occur once an executive director is hired.
Step 3: Create a team.
This team should consist of board members, other members, and outside experts to conduct interviews. Set ground rules for the interview process. Confidentiality is key, and discussion should only take place within the group—no side-car discussions that are off the record. Standardized metrics, scoring, and comment sheets should be used by each member of the search committee as interviews are conducted.
Recommendation: It is critical to include a variety of people on the selection committee. Using just the founders will limit the possibilities of who might be the best candidate and can become very biased.
Moving Forward: Taking on the Role of Executive Director
Once this transition process has taken place, there is still a lot of serious work ahead for the board of directors and the executive director to make this transition work. A successful transition requires a review of all processes and finances along with better understanding the personalities of the founding members. Finding the middle ground to give the founding members credit for what they have accomplished while trying to reconstruct the organization is the equation for success.
Here are some things to consider during this process:
Build trust throughout the organization.
The founding members need to feel assured they made the right decision. As the executive director, you should gradually take tasks away from them with the idea that you are making it easier for them, freeing them up to do their full-time, professional jobs. Be careful not to make board members think they did it all wrong—after all, they did this all as volunteers. The remaining organization members need to have a voice as well. Find ways to make their voices heard and important. The executive director needs to set their vision in place to make this transition and work with staff to share that vision and the responsibilities each staff members has in this process
Clean up governance.
This is about transparency. Bylaws need to be simple, allowing for the organization to be flexible and nimble; at the same time, bylaws must ensure that all voices are heard and all members are able to fully participate in the organization and its leadership opportunities. The executive director has the responsibility to review bylaws and make sure they reflect what is needed to meet the vision and mission of the organization. Establishing a Bylaws Committee made up of members who ask the right questions and clarify how they expect the organization to be governed is a good start to this. The process for submitting bylaw changes needs to be established and voted on by the membership. Using a professional parliamentarian is worth the investment when making any major changes in bylaws. Basic policies governing conflict of interest, confidentiality, and whistleblower reporting are important to make sure members feel confident about leadership ethics. Similarly, election procedures also help make members feel confident in leadership ethics, although these should be incorporated into the bylaws themselves.
Protect your staff.
With this type of transition, some board members may think they have a say in personnel selection, policies, and performance evaluations. They may try to give staff tasks and even reprimands.
This is very damaging to staff. It is hard enough to recruit good staff for nonprofits but allowing board members to interfere in the day-to-day work or personnel issues can even bring on legal problems. All requests from the board should come to the attention of the executive director or other designated supervisors as directed by the flow chart of the chain of command.
Use your skill set.
As the executive director, you were hired to be the leader and transform the organization. Do not be afraid to use your skill set and be confident with your expertise. This may mean confronting some of the old guard if they resist change. Work closely with the board’s chair—co-pilot these issues, do not let them fester.
In the beginning imagined scenario, the transition from volunteer to paid staff ended up bringing in large national grants. A more solidly professional structure meant greater funder confidence in the management. The nonprofit also saw a significant increase in membership due to the transparency created and the ability for all members to participate in leadership and strategic planning. Now, the members feel it is their organization and that they have a voice as to how it is moving forward.
In the words of Michael Dell’s Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey From Founder to Leader: “Anyone with technological insight and entrepreneurial zeal might build something great—but how do you make it last? Three defining battles waged for Dell Technologies: to launch it, to keep it, and to transform it.” As an incoming executive director, your job mostly revolves around the latter: transformation is the key to successful transitions.
Dr. Katie Wilson has a passion for child nutrition and dedicated her career to improving access to healthy food for all children. She spent 23 years as a school nutrition director, 5 years as the Executive Director for the Institute of Child Nutrition, 2 years as the Deputy Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at USDA, appointed by President Obama and is presently the Executive Director of the Urban School Food Alliance.
Dr. Wilson has shared her expertise throughout the United States and around the world as an invited speaker, and an academic guest lecturer for numerous government and private organizations. She also served on the 31st Standing Committee on Nutrition at the United Nations and is on the Board of Directors for the international group, Eating City.
Dr. Wilson holds a BS degree in dietetics, a MS degree in food science and nutrition, and a PhD in foodservice and lodging management. She is credentialed as a School Nutrition Specialist.
She has received many peer nominated awards throughout her career, including the recent award in her name: The Dr. Katie Wilson Lifetime Achievement Award, and is considered one of the top experts in the field of child nutrition.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
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