Transitioning from a Nonprofit Founder:
Keys for Success
Point of View by Ben Lambert, Senior Vice President
Over the last 5 years, we have seen a surge of retirements among nonprofit founders and CEOs/Executive Directors many with 20, 30, and even 40+ years of service to their organizations. During this time, our firm has been entrusted to lead many searches to identify, recruit, and assess talented leaders to follow these founders and long-standing nonprofit CEOs.
There are many opportunities and challenges for boards of directors to consider when conducting a search to replace a founder or long-standing nonprofit CEO/Executive Director (founder/CEO). However, one area that boards often struggle with is the actual transition of leadership itself. Once a new CEO has been selected, when should the announcement be made public? When should they start? Should there be an overlap between the new and retiring CEOs? What role, if any, should the retiring founder/CEO play in the organization? What should the transition look like?
The short answer is it depends on the organization and the executives involved. Much like the search process itself, there is no one size fits all approach that works for every organization in every situation. Nonprofit organizations are unique and CEO transitions require thoughtful and nuanced consideration. Here are tips for a smooth and successful CEO transition:
The board should be thinking about the transition well in advance of the new CEO selection, perhaps even before the search has begun. Will there be a transition committee? If so, who will chair the committee? Should that individual also be on the search committee? What role should the outgoing founder/CEO play in the search process and in the transition? Some decisions can and should made in advance of the new CEO. Others, such as the role of the founder/CEO in the transition should be explored in advance but not decided upon until the new CEO can be involved.
Listen to the Out-Going CEO
Involve the New CEO in Decision-Making
As soon as a selection is made, the board should communicate with the new CEO and seek their input about the transition, in advance of their start date. What do they need to get up to speed and be successful? What role should the outgoing founder/CEO play? The selected candidate should be involved in decisions about the transition.
Be Mindful of Common Pitfalls
Many founders and long-standing CEOs find it difficult to let go and want to have an active role in the organization after they retire. Some want to be on-site or even stay in their own office for the transition. Some wish to remain connected by joining the board. While every situation is unique and continued involvement from an outgoing founder/CEO can be beneficial, some practices can have a negative impact on the new CEO’s ability to establish themselves. The board/committee should be mindful of these potential pitfalls.
Be willing to Draw the Hard Line
The new CEO should have a strong voice in the role of the outgoing founder/CEO, but it is the board/committee’s responsibility to ensure the success of the transition, guiding all involved on best practices and what is in the best interest of the organization. In doing this, the board/committee may need to protect the new CEO from early decisions regarding the transition that may be unpopular or controversial. If the founder/CEO is requesting something that is not in the best interest of the organization, such as one of the examples above, the board/committee should be the ones to address the issue and draw the hard line, if needed.
Keep the End Goal in Mind
The end goal should be to honor and respect the great work and achievements of the retiring founder/CEO, while ensuring that the new CEO and the organization itself are set up for success. There will be speed bumps, but if the board plans ahead, facilitates an inclusive process, and is willing to be firm, when needed, a CEO transition can be a rewarding and even enjoyable process.
For more about our Nonprofit Search Services, please contact:
Senior Vice President
Head of Higher Education, Nonprofit, & Healthcare Practice
Berkhemer Clayton, Inc.