When it comes to Nonprofit CEO transitions, Ben Lambert, SVP of our Nonprofit and Higher Ed group, is truly an expert. Ben has led 20 Nonprofit CEO search engagements at Berkhemer Clayton over the last five years, and offers “best practices” for nonprofit boards of directors going through the most important responsibility a board has. Whether Baby-boomer retirements, or the Great Resignation post-pandemic, we have witnessed a wave of CEO transitions over recent years, and we predict this trend will continue.
Changing the CEO at the helm of a nonprofit 5013c or 501c6 organization can be disruptive, emotional, and unsettling. It is the board’s duty to manage the process well. The following best practices have proved to help smooth the bumps along the road. We counsel our client organizations how to navigate these waters, setting the new CEO up for success while respecting and honoring the outgoing for all they have accomplished.
Advance planning: When the board of directors is advised by the CEO of imminent departure for any reason, the board must immediately focus on how this transition will be communicated to staff, board members, donors, stakeholders and the community. To maintain stability and trust, a step-by-step plan to inform people must come first. If the timeline is going to be lengthy, the communication may be in stages, but planned ahead nonetheless.
Actual Transition: Acknowledging what the outgoing CEO has achieved during their tenure, the board must be very clear and specific about drawing a hard line between past and present. Incoming and outgoing may overlap for a brief time if the board wants that the outgoing CEO to help introduce the new CEO to donors and sponsors. And as a physical line of demarcation, the board must inform the outgoing CEO even before the search begins, that their office must be relinquished to the new CEO on day one. Otherwise staff and stakeholders will be confused about who is the captain of the ship.
Set up the New CEO for success: Orchestrate the schedule for introductions, rather than letting things happen slowly. Establish an on-boarding support team to assist the new CEO—including several board members, the CFO, and perhaps sponsors or donors. Finally, consider an executive coach to assist with leadership counsel in this new environment. Coaching does not connote any lack of ability on the part of the new CEO, but shows that the board is doing everything possible to help guide the new CEO during the first few months.
It’s in your bylaws—managing the CEO, and any transition, is the number one responsibility of the board of directors. This is a responsibility all nonprofit board members must take to heart. We are here to handle your CEO search and help you through all stages of the process to achieve the best possible outcome long-term.