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Nonprofits must prepare for transitions

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Jeanie P. Duncan

Jeanie P. Duncan

Jeanie P. Duncan

Study after study reinforces the impending turnover of top leadership in the nonprofit sector – and potential crisis as a result – with roughly 67 percent of executive directors and CEOs reporting that they plan to leave their jobs within the next five years, according to Daring to Lead, a study by the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint.

This study also reveals that many boards of directors are unprepared to handle the transition and selection and support of new leaders, with just 17 percent reporting their organizations have a written succession plan.

Obviously, transitions raise a long list of issues that point to the complexity and difficulty of such pivotal moments.

While there are no simple solutions, changes in leadership can be addressed positively and proactively and strengthen the organization as a result.

At a minimum, an organization should have an emergency transition or succession plan if an executive director is suddenly unable to perform his or her duties.

Often, nonprofit institutions have a culture of group decision-making – a process that can be complex and create delays.

A board can address this issue in its bylaws, empowering a small representative group, such as an executive or personnel committee, to act on its behalf.

A nonprofit should have written job descriptions and a performance evaluation system in place for all staff.

This is especially critical for the executive director position.

And board leadership should understand the executive’s core role and functions and how well the individual is performing against agreed-upon goals.

A nonprofit should institute a culture of ongoing cross-training among staff so that individuals have a clear understanding of one another’s responsibilities – especially among the leadership team.

If possible, an organization’s key donor relationships should be shared by the executive director and other members of the staff and board.

This helps lessen vulnerability, share fund raising responsibility, and ensure that vital donor relationships are held with the organization and not exclusively with a particular leader.

Nonprofit groups often do not have sufficient reserves to weather significant challenges, exposing the organization to financial vulnerabilities.

Leadership transitions, if not handled properly, can intensify this situation.

Advanced planning and good management, however, allow even the smallest organizations to build a few months’ operating reserve.

These strategies are critical to prepare for both short- and long-term transitions.

In the case of a longer-term planned departure, these actions can be coupled with broader assessment and planning, presenting an organization with a unique opportunity to examine strategic direction, priorities, and chart a future course.

The key is not merely to endure the transition, but to emerge stronger and more dynamic from it.


Jeanie P. Duncan is president of Raven Consulting Group in Greensboro, N.C.

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