Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Barbara Rady Kazdan and Lynn S. Price
This is the third in a multi-part series from Barbara Rady Kazdan and Lynn S. Price on the issues nonprofits face in transitioning leadership. You can read the first two installments here: Part I | Part II.
Personally painful, professionally disruptive transitions
Founders who had passed the baton welcomed the chance to examine their personally painful and professionally disruptive transitions in the supportive, collegial interviews we conducted. Most experienced emotional trauma in the aftermath of transitions that were “humiliating or deeply disappointing,”1 in circumstances like these:
It happened unexpectedly … you felt powerless to prevent it. One founder was forced out; the program director, her trusted partner, convinced the new board chair to give her the job. Another’s board borrowed money during her medical leave; unable to repay the loan, the organization folded.
Someone was intentionally cruel. Some successors cut off communications and even erased the founder from their organization’s history. One founder said:
The board provided an office for me, but my successor announced, ‘There’s no room in this sandbox for you.’ The board had always relied on my leadership. Believing they’d found a strong leader to replace me, they went along when he insisted I sign a non-compete agreement. That locked me out of my field!
To cope with this complete break, she told us: “I went through the steps of the grieving process.”
Imagine the anguish of founders experiencing a complete loss of status, shunned by organizations they had created and led with distinction. One said, “I had nothing to show for a decade devoted to an idea I cared deeply about.” How did it feel? We heard, “Betrayed.” “Angry.”
“It shook my confidence; I kept wondering, how did I let this happen?”
“Even close friends didn’t understand my despair at being separated from the
organization I loved.”
“I couldn’t just walk away. I had to be in the loop.”
But after stepping down, most participants experienced a communications blackout. When longtime supporters and colleagues asked for updates about the organization, they were surprised that the founder had no answers. This not only hurt the person who had been the face of the organization but diminished the nonprofit’s base of support.
Post-transition, several participants found themselves with no professional affiliation, job title, or standing in the world of work. This loss of work identity was profound. Displaced and disheartened, they lacked the energy to reinvent themselves. They needed time to recover and redefine their goals, but most didn’t have that luxury. “I read ‘don’t rush to fill the void, let the field lie fallow,’ but I needed a job.”
Despite engaging board and staff in transition planning, the founder often became the object of blame:
“People I’d worked closely with, friends, cut off communications. It was shocking how quickly and completely those relationships evaporated.”
“I cared about my colleagues; thought it was mutual. It surprised and hurt me when close relationships didn’t survive.”
When new leaders severed ties with the person who had represented the organization to key constituents and leaders in the field, they lost strategic assets: a high-profile good will ambassador, institutional memory, and supporters loyal to the founder. While emotions run high during leadership transitions, organizations would be well served to leave the door open for future communications with the founder.
A Promising Exception
What can we learn from a founder who navigated smooth transitions? He created three organizations with complementary missions, developing the next project while he was still engaged in the first one. He told us:
Early on, I’d look for a second in command among staff or board, and groom that person for an administrative position, so I could observe how they worked with everyone and handled a decision-making role. It gave me freedom of conscience when I left, and no terrible possessiveness.
Tapping his networks, he made strategic connections for his successors.
Passing the Torch
How to select a successor? Participants’ boards promoted from within or hired a consulting firm to conduct a search. Neither approach reliably yielded desired results. Although they were likely candidates, often the organizations’ program director or chief operating officer lacked experience in developing and maintaining relationships with key funders. Founders observed, “they weren’t comfortable in that world.”
While most participants had groomed a successor, most boards decided instead to engage consultants who would conduct a national search for the right candidate. This proved to be costly, unreliable and even counter-productive. In one case, despite consultants’ 360-degree analysis to identify the type of person needed, four executive directors came and went in one year. That founder noted, “consultants underestimate the influence of cultural and emotional factors.” Another recalled:
The consultants warned, “Don’t tell anyone you’re leaving. Your funders
will pull out.” That seemed unethical. I couldn’t do it.
Some participants suggested that if boards are determined to engage consultants, they would be best-served by firms that offer strength-based approaches to nonprofit clients of similar size and culture.
Securing adequate resources is a board responsibility that’s often shifted to the founder; while the organization flourishes, these boards rubber stamp decisions, but when funding falters, they blame the founder. Board members who have been the founder’s cheerleaders or silent partners are often ill-equipped or reluctant to tackle fundraising. When the founder encounters challenges or a successor needs guidance, they can’t help.
When asked if the board became more engaged in fundraising after the transition, we heard: “Yes. I’d done all the fundraising,” or, “My staff and I developed fundraising campaigns, grant proposals, and earned income strategies. I took the lead but always brought a board member to meetings with prospective donors.” Anticipating a leadership transition, participants observed, “boards need to lean in, get closer to funders.” Board training was minimal, even when transition was imminent. Founding boards often experienced turnover: “Most board members I’d recruited left or didn’t stand for reelection; they disagreed with where my successor was taking the organization.”
A successor typically needs a more engaged, hands-on board than the founder. Transition is an ideal time for a board training program that prepares members to govern and helps both new and old board members gain a shared understanding of their roles.
In the next section we’ll consider strategies to support successful leadership transitions and structural changes to strengthen the nonprofit sector.
1. Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D (2017) “Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Healing from Trauma and Moving On” retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/coping-with-emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm
With 30 years’ non-profit experience, Barbara Rady Kazdan launched Achieving Change Together to advance and connect leading social entrepreneurs. The founder of two innovative nonprofits, as Director, Ashoka U.S., she built and guided a nationwide network of 120 change leaders. She is a contributing author to Contagious Optimism.
Lynn Price is the founder of Camp To Belong International. She is a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow with more than 25 years experience keynoting conferences and guiding scaling efforts of several social causes. She is the author of Real Belonging, Give Siblings Their Right to Reunite® and Vision For A Change, A Social Entrepreneur’s Insights From the Heart.