In 2011, the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services produced a research report “Daring to Lead” that surveyed 3,000 nonprofit executive directors and revealed a forecast of significant impending workplace transitions, with 67% of executives reporting that they expect to leave their jobs over the next five years.

Today, while we see many leadership transitions occurring among the Baby Boomer population, “what was once characterized as a pipeline problem can now be described as a bottleneck, as many individuals are choosing to work beyond the traditional retirement age due to a variety of reasons, including a prolonged economic recession,” reports the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in “Moving Arts Leadership Forward.”

This reality requires organizations to examine its greatest asset – its people, their roles, and career paths – in strategic and creative ways. Workplaces can expect a robust boomer presence through at least 2034, when the youngest boomers will turn 70. This reality impacts Gen X-ers and Millennials aspiring to executive positions, where the wait time for succession is often longer than they would like.

While there was once a question of whether there were enough capable professionals to succeed an organization, now the challenge is more focused on developing and retaining early- and mid-career professionals in an environment of limited opportunities for formal advancement.

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/succession plan if an Executive Director is suddenly unable to perform his or her duties. Many boards of directors are underprepared to handle the transition and selection and support of new leaders, with just 17% reporting that their organizations have a written succession plan (per Daring to Lead 2011).

–       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 (executive or personnel committee, for example) to act on its behalf – in situations like this and others.

–       Have written job descriptions and a performance evaluation system in place for all staff. This is especially critical for the Executive Director position. Board leadership should have familiarity of the Executive’s core role and functions and how well the individual is performing against agreed upon goals.

–       Institute a culture of ongoing cross training among staff, whereby 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. However, advanced planning and good management allows even the smallest organizations to build a few months’ operating reserve.

These strategies are critical to developing leaders and preparing 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 transitions, but to emerge stronger and more dynamic from it.


You may also be interested in these related blog posts:

Succession Planning: Conversation Avoided

Challenges to Addressing Leadership Transitions


brick closeAbout Jeanie Duncan: Jeanie is President of Raven Consulting Group, a business she founded that focuses on organizational change and leadership development in the nonprofit sector. She is a senior consultant for Raffa, a national firm working with nonprofit clients to lead efforts in sustainability and succession planning, executive transition and search. Additionally, Jeanie serves as adjunct faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive leadership education.

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