New leaders should focus on where the organization is now, not what the founder did.
When Blue Avocado asked for potential interviewees who had followed a founder or a long-time executive, we didn’t expect 58 people to respond. We interviewed 18 executive directors who followed founders, and another 10 who followed long-time execs.
Last issue’s First Person Nonprofit and this article are also ramp-ups to the national survey of nonprofit leaders in similar positions.
If founding a nonprofit takes strong self-confidence and a soaring vision, following such a leader takes hard-headed management skills and just plain hard work, according to 28 “followers” — let’s call them “successors” because they succeeded long-timers. They work at organizations that range from 2 to 300 staff.
Here’s a story that combines several themes: “I replaced the founder of 35 years. Plus, she was my mother! I’ll have been in this job for 10 years come July, and nine of them have been a financial struggle. I’d be putting on this warrior clothing to go out and battle and find money and keep this vision solid. And then my mother would come in and say you’re doing it all wrong. You’re compromising all the things I worked for, for what, a dollar?”
Strong programs but weak management
Almost all successors came into organizations they saw as having strong programming but weak management.
Many of struggled with personnel problems as their predecessors had idiosyncratic salary schedules and often had made special arrangements for individuals:
“I’m following a founder — it’s been 7 months now — who was a charismatic and wonderful person who left the organization in terrible shape. There was not one part of the organization that didn’t need attention.”
“Some people had been there 15 or 20 years and never had an evaluation. Some people were paid way over what they should been paid and others weren’t getting enough; it was due to favoritism.”
“I did fire quite a few people. I had to take them to a coffee shop to do it because my office didn’t have a door. I realized I had subconsciously established a pattern of which coffee shop I took people to: one to talk and one to fire them in.”
In general, successors found that they were professionalizing organizations that had understandably developed around a strong founder:
“We started certain classes at 6:30 at night. I said why? I was told we start them at that time because the husband of the founder was done with his dinner by then.”
“The founder was a volunteer ED. I’m the first full time paid executive director. Definitely changed the budget.”
On the other hand:
“One advantage you have at the beginning is that there’s some appetite for risk-taking in a stable, staid organization. You can come in with a white hat for a brief period and say I know we’ve always done it this way, but … .”
In particular, many organizations were in financial straits. In some cases a founder or long-time executive was having less and less success in fundraising and left bogged down in helplessness and failure.
In other cases financial difficulties led to his or her being fired. And in too many cases, there was a looming problem or a house of cards teetering and ready to fall.
“When I took over 4 years ago we had close to $50,000 in liabilities. Grants were way down. Hadn’t applied for grants. I guess it was because she was ill and didn’t ask for help.”
“We were 90% funded by state contracts. Four months after I started our first budget cuts from the state came and we lost 250K and then another 500K.”
“In the two weeks before the final offer, the board chair said our biggest funder — 40% of the funding stream — was leaving. But by then I was falling in love with the organization and the clients they served. Later the board confessed that if they hadn’t found the right leader they were ready to shut down the nonprofit.”
“He could see the crash was coming so he got out before he had to deal with the consequences of that. It was ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul.'”
A board built for a different regime
Founders often seek board members who are friends and will stay out of the way. Over time, most long-time executives build boards that support and complement them. And successful executives — whether founders or not — build confidence in their boards who then step back.
Despite the fear that a post-founder board will micromanage, instead, successors found themselves disappointed in the level of engagement or even interest from the board:
“The board was acting as an advisory board rubber stamping staff decisions.”
“They had so much trust and faith in the former [executive], they had become overly deferential. They did not hold him accountable.”
“I expected the board to have higher expectations. They were just ticking along for 24 years.”
Over time, successors either found ways to work with the board or actively replaced them. They try hard to win the approval of the board. We appreciated this comment:
“You find yourself worrying more about what board needs than what the organization needs.”
Founders are different from non-founders, even if the non-founder has been there for decades
“Founders are giving up their babies. Non-founders put on their coats and leave.” So says Tim Wolfred, long-time head of CompassPoint’s executive transitions program, and our interviews bore that out:
“My [founder] predecessor came to staff meetings for six months. The first one she just came in and sat down. The second one I thought: maybe she needs some time. But eventually I had to take her to lunch and say this is really confusing for staff and I ‘d like you to stop. She was very, very hurt.”
“At first he [a non-founder] gave me advice and I just said well, I’m going to do something else. Now he barbecues for the staff barbecue; that’s all he does.”
“The founder always described this organization as ‘my baby.’ She knew that I have two adopted children and it gave her comfort that I understood what she was talking about in giving her baby to me.”
Managing the predecessor
Although departing executives often feel that they are being helpful by staying involved, their successors struggle to manage them while trying to honor their past:
“They were coming off a big campaign and the ED said she didn’t want to go back to doing regular ED work. So she stayed with a different title about strategic initiatives and stayed reporting to the board.
The board did this to keep her community connections like the Chamber, but effectively that meant I couldn’t step into any of those connections.”
“My predecessor was showing up every other day to use our copy machine. At the beginning everyone was excited to see him because they really like him. But one manager told him that she had work to do and couldn’t talk. It was hard.”
“When I shut down a legacy program I was really grateful that my predecessor did not fan the flames. I reached out to him advance. It was very emotional for both staff and volunteers and donors. It was really helpful that he did not step in.”
“My predecessor is now one of my funders — she moved to a foundation that’s been a long-time funder. So I now have regular phone calls and she’s wearing two hats — as founder and as funder. We got off to a rocky start… for 2.5 hours [in our first conversation] she told me I wasn’t the right choice for the position. I’ve been working my way out of that deficit since then.”
“Every two to three months I reach out for coffee with the former executive. I give her an update. She feels that I’m respecting the relationship and that I want to learn from her.”
Advice for yourself when you were taking the job?
We asked interviewees to go back in time and give advice to themselves at the moment they were deciding whether to take their current jobs:
“I should have asked: how engaged was the board? They seemed extremely engaged during the interviews. But it turned out they had all approved the budget without knowing what was in it.”
“It wouldn’t have stopped me from taking the job, but I would have asked directly: do you have outcomes and performance indicators? Is the board engaged in fund development? I made assumptions and didn’t questions.”
“In my current position [the second time following a founder] I asked to be reviewed after the first 90 days. A check-in, I can see what the demands of the job are, a good time for me to set out my goals and discuss them.”
“I should have asked if there are any employees who aren’t performing and are being protected by the ED who probably have to be fired.”
“The board said we are in great financial health. Why did I not dig deeper?”
“I’m in the 12th percentile for pay. I would have asked them to pay me at the 50th percentile.”
Successors work hard, and many of them stay for many years. They typically focus on management and infrastructure, more rarely on programmatic adaptation. They also recognize that every organization has issues to work on:
“A lot of this stuff isn’t founder’s stuff. It’s the cyclical nature of how an organization makes progress, gets stuck, makes progress again and gets stuck again. Rather than focusing on what the founder did or didn’t do, you have to think about where in this cycle the organization is now.”
Our thanks to Jenn Brandon, John Britz, Marie Cubillas, Jeffrey Dollinger, Cassandra Flipper, Valerie Golik, Peter Hainley, Jenny Hansell, Rutheanne Hill, Chris Hoene, Susan Hughes, Emily Hopkins, Susan Joy, Marie Lipetz, Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, Nishant Mehta, Dotty Metcalf, Sarah Milligan-Toffler, Chandra Montgomery Nicol, Tess Reynolds, Pam Rodriguez, L Carol Scott, Sue Sherbrook, Trudy Soucoup, Anne Viricel, MK Wegman, Barbara Wertheimer, Cheryl Zoll, and Cathy of Oregon. You made so many insightful and compelling comments that we weren’t able to include here. Your thoughts will be part of the larger national study on this issue as well.
About the Author
Jan is a former editor of Blue Avocado, former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and has sat in on dozens of budget discussions as a board member of several nonprofits. With Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman, she co-authored Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, which looks at nonprofit business models.
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.