Supporting Nonprofit Leadership Transitions

A Board Member's Most Important Role

May 12, 2022

By Jennifer W. Aronson, Senior Associate Vice President, Programs

Many of us serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations we believe in and care about. In this capacity we can help the organizations fundraise, manage their investments, or market their programs and services. However, a board member's most important role may emerge during a leadership transition.

According to 2019 research by the Building Movement Project (BMP), almost half of nonprofit executive directors (EDs) and CEOs reported that they were thinking about or planning a career transition, or were already in the process of leaving their jobs. Many in the field think the real number is likely much higher, and that we are only at the beginning of a wave of transitions driven by a generational shift and amplified by the delayed retirements of leaders who may have been ready to leave earlier, but who didn’t want to abandon their organizations during COVID. A May 3 Chronicle of Philanthropy article (free with registration) explores this dynamic in depth.

Normalizing Change

With change comes opportunity. Indeed, in these moments board members and donors have a particularly important opportunity: to challenge a default mindset that has not served the field well. Often boards and donors are inclined to hold back support during leadership changes, waiting for the new ED to prove themself. However, the reality is that this can create harm and increase the risk that the transition won't be successful. 

What if instead of withholding support we focused on creating the conditions needed for this next generation of leaders to thrive? When we normalize executive transitions as part of healthy organizational development and provide support for what we know to be a resource-intensive process, we can help increase the chance that these new leaders, and their organizations, will be successful. 

By making conversations about the departure of nonprofit leaders routine, boards can mitigate stakeholder concerns. Well before a transition is on the horizon, boards can:

  • Build a trusting relationship between the board chair and the ED, allowing the ED to be honest about where they're getting "fuel" for carrying on the work and when they may need to make a change. A close relationship here can also help a founding ED move away from the "hero-preneur" role, allowing the organization to develop an identity beyond the force of the leader's personality.  
  • Establish deliberate practices and resources around transition planning, including professional development and board relationship opportunities for other members of the executive team, and tools such as succession charts and staff competency maps updated with every new hire. During an ED’s last six months it can be extremely helpful for the board and ED to consistently include another executive team member in all meetings and conversations.
  • Support both outgoing and incoming leaders. When the transition period is long enough, encourage outgoing leaders to test out ideas and think through their philosophies (e.g., via sabbatical, writing or speaking engagements) to help them codify their "magic." Meanwhile, when a successor is known, explicitly share both organizational and board culture and decision-making frameworks. Giving outgoing and incoming EDs unstructured time together and communicating clearly and often to staff and stakeholders throughout the transition process are other behaviors that can lead to success.

Opportunities to Advance Racial Equity

Leadership transitions present a precious opportunity to address the sector’s persistent racial leadership gap. As the most recent U.S. census reveals, our nation is growing ever more diverse. Our nonprofit leaders, however, are not. In its influential 2017 study, Race to Lead, the BMP documented what those of us working in the nonprofit sector already sensed: The percentage of people of color in the ED/CEO role has remained under 20 percent for the last 15 years, even as the country has become more diverse. BMP's September 2021 report, Making or Taking Space, sheds light on the added challenges involved in executive transitions where a person of color is taking over leadership from a white executive director. 

There are signs that the recent emphasis on racial equity in the sector is pushing nonprofit boards to recruit leaders of color. Yet, the transitions are often happening before the organization is "ready" to be led by a person of color. As the Making or Taking Space report notes, "Most incoming leaders [of color] were expected to heal tensions that had overheated under previous [white] leadership." For a leader of color—or any leader for that matter—to be successful, the organization needs to address any acute issues it has been facing, including those related to race (perhaps with an external DEI expert), in parallel with or prior to the leader's arrival, and with the board's involvement.

When moving from a white-led, white-dominant organization to one that identifies, hires, and supports more leaders of color, boards should embrace several practices and considerations:

  • Rethink succession planning: A traditional succession planning process is often highly structured and subordinates the voice of the staff; newer thinking prioritizes internal hires who often know the work of the organization well, and may also comprise a racially diverse talent pool. This approach to preparing for and managing leadership change, sometimes called “intentional pathway planning,” (well-described in a 2020 Nonprofit Quarterly article) also allows the transition to usher in new concepts including structural change. The increasingly popular co-director model is an innovation only made possible by stepping away from the customary idea of "filling a pre-existing slot."
  • Develop a holistic leadership profile for the next leader of the organization. Honor and prioritize staff perspectives and engage multiple stakeholder voices outside of the board in the process. Be specific and transparent, ensuring diverse and empowered representatives are involved in the search process to counter inherent individual and organizational biases.
  • Most important of all: Ready your board and your organization to become one that a leader or color wants to join and lead. How? Explore the many assessment tools available online or through consultants. Build board and organizational capacity to support a leader of color and nurture a diverse staff. TBF's Racial Equity Capacity Building Directory can help you find consultants and workshops to get started. And why? Not only will you better ensure success for the new leader, the process will make the entire organization stronger, more creative, more equitable, and more resilient.

By leaning into conversations now about your ED's transition with fellow board members and with your organization's ED themself, when the inevitable time comes for your organization's leader to move on, your board will be well prepared to both honor and support that person, and to recognize the change for the opportunity it is: a chance to advance racial equity and leave the organization stronger than you found it.