Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Critical Issues #14: Managing Change will be out tomorrow. One important moment of change in a nonprofit is the transition of an organization from dominance by a founder (or other individually dominant leader) to a more mature organization with different needs and multiple roles.

In its simplest construct, the issue is one of succession. Succession planning is typically about identifying and developing people internally to be able to step up to leadership.

In a small to medium sized nonprofit there may not be staff candidates with the requisite executive skill set. Often the board's discussion focuses on how to identify an external candidate. This simply perpetuates the reliance on an individual rather than an institutional infrastructure. It may work, but it's not moving the organization to the next level.

A more meaningful change toward sustainability involves engaging stakeholders (board, volunteers, staff) in developing the organization more broadly, and clearly articulating its mission, values, and operations. The biggest components of this effort are usually board development and governance work, and strategic planning. Doing this work will

  • prepare the organization to guide its next CEO to build on accumulated experience and wisdom
  • serve to attract the best candidates for the position by assuring them that there is a solid base to work from
  • provide an initial trajectory for the new CEO to follow while getting to know the organization
I have been asked quite frequently whether a nonprofit facing the retirement of a long-term CEO should put off strategic planning until after the new person is hired, to give her the opportunity to shape the strategy to fit her vision.

The answer, for the three reasons bulleted above, is to do the planning —and governance work —now. The candidate you want to hire is one who will see any of this preparation as an asset, both in evaluating the opportunity and in starting the job. It's a better bet to have to redirect a moving ship than to wonder what it will take to get it moving at all. This is true for a founder transition, or for a later one.

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