In the article “Whose Nonprofit Is It Anyway?” we included a survey to gather reader’s thoughts about the challenging topic of transitioning from a founder to new leadership. After taking time to collect and digest the results, here we report back on the trends and examples readers shared, in the hopes that their pitfalls and lessons may help ease your nonprofit’s leadership change.
Starting a nonprofit takes a certain kind of person, often a charismatic individual, able to pull together the people necessary to start an organization and speak to the cause in a way that draws support. The very strength of this person, so necessary in the early stages, often becomes a detriment if down the road they hold a disproportionate amount of power and influence. At some point, they’ll need to step down, and what happens then?
In hearing from Blue Avocado readers about their experiences and thoughts about succession planning, we’ve uncovered a few points to keep in mind should your nonprofit be approaching a leadership transition: the importance of planning, taking into consideration the personality of the founder and whether a “divorce” is necessary, the board’s ability to step up, and searching for the right next leader. While every situation is different, keeping these in mind will guide you toward a successful transition.
Before we dive in, we’d like to share a quick overview of the readers who responded to our survey over the past couple years: 73% worked at nonprofits that were over 10 years old, and 62% of respondents said their founder was still involved in some capacity, hence the need for some conversation around succession planning! Many readers had crossed the chasm successfully and had helpful tips to share; but others struggled with transitions and had equally-valuable pitfalls they wanted to help others avoid. With that said, let’s share what we learned from you!
Have a Plan
76% of nonprofits that have completed a leadership change agree that having a solid plan in place was helpful to smooth the transition. Otherwise, things can unwind and go south fast, as happened for this nonprofit; “When the founding CEO retired the organization did not have a plan to transfer the responsibilities to the new CEO. Within two years the retired CEO was asked to return to fix the mess.” As of the time of the survey, that CEO was still serving as the executive director of the organization.
Not having a plan can lead to a chaotic period where key roles go unfulfilled or people are left unsure who to go to for what. One nonprofit where the founder was still involved and creating friction reported; “We are still in the midst of our transition (18 months after it began—for a nonprofit with eight full-time staff members…). There have been many challenges, mostly all rooted in complete lack of succession planning by the former ED and the board. The board seemed to believe that the ED had a plan, but he did not. The former ED, though technically no longer on our payroll, has still not fully transitioned financial autonomy to the new ED. This has implications for literally everything we do.”
Creating a succession plan isn’t enough; that plan must be written down and shared widely with the board and senior leadership. In addition, one person suggested the importance of “revisiting the succession plan, which includes checking in with senior leadership who may be nearing retirement as to any changes in their plans.”
Founder Maturity and Self-Knowledge
The emotional maturity and self-awareness of the founder plays a key role in how they are (or are not) able to pass on leadership. Ideally, founders are able to let go of ego concerns and are willing to move into a new position that supports the mission as the organization grows (or step out entirely if that’s best). One person explained this mature approach as follows: “The vision and mission of the organization were much greater than the personal aspirations of the original founders. They were seasoned business people who well knew they had limited skills to bring to the table toward growth and ultimately broadening the skill base, sector intelligence, and influence that would be needed to see the organization flourish.”
Unfortunately, some people reported a less healthy approach by some founders to transitioning and the impact that had on the overall health of the organization:
“The founder was fired from the board, but still works as a volunteer and will not relinquish control to staff. She refuses to adopt new ways of working, and creates rumors and friction. The founder has chased two EDs away, and is trying to force out the current ED. It’s a nightmare.”
We heard many similar complaints from readers, including “The founder is still assuming ‘ownership’ for the organization and personal entitlement.” And “Founding members no longer want to hold leadership positions but want the control of having leadership positions, making it difficult for new leadership to affect change.” So if your nonprofit faces these problems, you’re not alone.
If your founder doesn’t fully support the transition, appeal to their ego and the need for their support to enable the nonprofit’s ability to carry on their hard-won legacy, as that can sometimes earn their cooperation.
The transition can be easier if the founder has created a strong vision that is not dependent on their charisma and embedded it within the culture, or the nonprofit’s mission emerges more directly from constituents. As one founder who had recently left his organization (and characterized it as a smooth transition), said, “It was and is a membership organization of nonprofits, so the vision of the members and not the founder/ED determined the vision and the work.”
Divorce the Founder
Unsurprisingly, the most toxic situation for succession seems to be when the former ED is still involved in a way that undermines the new leader, as happened here: “The founder, three years later, is still involved as a teacher. Parents and students are unhappy but staff and some board feel he should remain because he is the founder. He actively tries to undermine the current artistic director by going to the board to try to get decisions overturned that he doesn’t like.”
In the cases in which the founder is unable to let go or allow the new leader to do their job, a clean break may make more sense, as it was in this case:
“The founder/director left for 1-2 years, so we had a ‘total divorce’ where the board and volunteers were still very involved in keeping continuity. New staff got their bearings and had room for new ideas. Then the founder came back as a board member and is now Chair because their passion helps the staff do their job; it doesn’t compete but compliments the staff.”
Framed a different way, when we asked what helps keep succession planning smooth, several readers shared that at least a year of time apart after the transition is key, including “The original founder making a clean break with the organization when they retire or move to a different job. Leadership must be handed over and the new leader empowered; this can’t happen if the past leader is still around.”
The value of a clean break, at least for a time, may lie less in any failing of the founder and more in the difficulty others have allowing a new leader to replace them, especially if the old leader is still around: “It’s always a rough start. Remaining board members have a hard time following new leadership. They often decide to back the old leadership who still attend every meeting.” That said, the opposite can sometimes be true, as shared in a recent Bridgespan Group study.
Board Takes Charge
While the departing ED must let go, at the same time the board needs to step up and take ownership and responsibility, particularly if they were less involved when a strong founding leader was in place. In the experience of one nonprofit in which the founders were no longer involved, when asked whether it was a successful transition, “Yes and no are my answers! We are still within the transition from a powerhouse couple that ran the org, with other board members letting them. It’s tough to help the board see that they have as much ownership and responsibility as the couple had, rather than expecting staff to handle everything. We are making progress, though, with more board involvement than a couple of years ago.”
This type of transition to a stronger board makes it clear that formal board orientations and training are critical to successful transitions. For the board to step up, they need to know what their roles are and how to effectively help the organization move forward with a new leader in place.
Search for the Right Person
Unfortunately, in a cash-strapped nonprofit, succession planning may consist of simply replacing the ED with someone from within instead of conducting a search for viable candidates, which of course may lead to hiring an internal candidate, but only after all options are considered. This can threaten the continued health of the nonprofit since ensuring future viability necessitates a thorough search for a replacement actually qualified to lead the organization into the next stage.
As some people noted, the skills of a founder are not necessarily the same as the skills needed to grow and maintain the nonprofit in later stages. One reader shared, “The vision can only take you so far—then you have to let the folks who know how to actually do business-like stuff take over. The skills of founders rarely serve the organization well after the nonprofit matures.” But when things work out and the skills match the needs of the organization given its lifecycle, good things can unfold: “The founder had a different set of skills than what was needed for maintenance of the organization; her successor was able to put the organization on a more solid financial footing.” Once again, though, this isn’t always true, and if you’re lucky enough to have a founder who is both an inspiring visionary and a great manager, hold onto that leader as long as you can!
In closing, although we’ve talked a lot about challenging founders who won’t let go, whether you struggle with that personality type or are lucky to work alongside someone more attached to the mission than their own ego, never forget that ultimately, none of the work of the nonprofit would be possible if not for the bold vision and hard work of the founder, so it’s key to treat them with the respect and gratitude they deserve. One reader put it this way:
“Typically the founder greatly sacrificed time and personal resources for the vision and mission. In this financial climate, financial institutions are unwilling to give loans or credit cards without the financial backing of the founder. It is for these reasons, a founder’s wishes to maintain the original vision and mission is warranted. After all, the agency wouldn’t exist had not been for their great sacrifice.”
Since every nonprofit and situation is different, here are a few questions to ask to guide your next steps:
- Does your nonprofit have a written succession plan that all board members and senior management contributed to and with which they are familiar?
- Does your founder have the maturity and self-knowledge to allow change and new leadership? If not, how can you convince them this is critical for their organization to succeed?
- Is your board willing to do the work to find a competent new ED (and back them once they’re hired)?
- Are the roles and responsibilities of the founder well-defined so that they may be assumed by the new ED or other staff?
- Are your board and leadership clear about what stage your nonprofit is in and what type of leadership is required to move forward?
In case you’re interested, here are a few other results from the survey:
- You can do it! Of those who had transitioned to new leadership, 79% did characterize that transition as successful.
- Of the People: 84% of readers agreed that an individual founder does not have ownership of a nonprofit. The other 16% are wrong! No individual has any ownership interest in a nonprofit.
- Recipe for Success: When asked what helps smooth the way for succession, over three quarters agreed that a good plan for the transition is essential, and over half thought lots of board involvement and enough time for the transition were also helpful. A few other recommendations included:
- The plan should be in place while the organization is in its youth. The roles of each of the players should be clearly defined, including the founder, but also staff, etc.
- A relationship between founder and new ED where they can acknowledge the difficulties and talk through them telling each other what they need.
- Board and founder educating themselves on “founder’s syndrome.” Clear buy in from the founder prior to transitioning to new leadership.
- Referring back to mission statement & goals to keep on track, or get back on track.
- Input from all members of the board, along with input from volunteers and the agreement to accept the majority vote, regardless of personal desires.
- A clear understanding that the nonprofit is owned by the public entrusted by the public to the oversight of the board of directors. The CEO and the Chair of the board are important voices, but the ultimate authority is the board of directors as a whole, not any one individual.
- Founder Roles: In addition to the 62% of respondents we referenced earlier, who said their founder was still involved, another 11% said they were involved in an advisory or honorary role.
- Roles the founder still holds include ED (50%), Board chair or board member (17%), advisory or staff, and a handful said founder was “involved inasmuch as he/she is creating friction.”
- Founder Impact: When the founder was still involved, 30% reported the mission, programs, and approach have remained the same, with 6% saying the mission had changed, and 65% that the programs had changed. When the founder was no longer involved, 21% said the mission, approach, and programs had changed significantly, 53% that they’d changed somewhat, and 25% that they hadn’t changed.
For over 15 years, Julie has been supporting people to get their work out into the world through the written word and online courses. She has ghostwritten countless articles and is co-author of four books: Words That Work in Business, Choosing Peace, From Conflict to Connection, and When Your Mind Sabotages Your Dreams. In addition to working with Blue Avocado, Julie is also the editor for Access The World online magazine and has coached people on writing effectively for media. Besides her writing, editing, and project management work, Julie is also a health and transformation coach, energy healing practitioner, and speaker committed to empowering people to fully live their healing journey through taking back their power over their well-being.