During the past few months, we have seen a rush of retirement and resignation announcements from local nonprofit leaders. Now that the world seems to have gotten through the worst of the pandemic, many nonprofit leaders seem to be ready for new challenges, a change of scenery, or, in some cases, both.
Perhaps, you are a staff leader who also is contemplating retirement or a departure. Or you’re the board leader of an organization anticipating a leadership change this fall or winter. If so, it’s time to get those conversations moving forward. Over the past eight to nine years, Charitable Advisors has supported more than 90 area nonprofit organizations in preparing for a leadership transition and recruiting a new leader — far more than any other succession planning and recruiting firm in the area.
Here are the top four questions we receive about ED/CEO retirement plans, which I can further discuss with you during a free consultation. In general, there is not a single correct answer to these questions since relationships and culture will have an impact on your organization’s plans.
1. When and with whom should I start the conversation? The first official conversation should be with the board chair, sometimes with the executive committee. Informally, some leaders also will have a conversation with select senior staff members.
2. How far in advance should the ED/CEO inform the board? We suggest two important timeframes for consideration: The “Get Ready” timeframe and the “It’s Time to Move Forward” timeframe.
“Get Ready” is the discussion you should have when a staff leader is beginning to think about their retirement timeframe. In this case, we suggest that succession planning be included in the next cycle of your strategic plan or included as a portion of an upcoming board retreat. No rush … just beginning to think. This can be 12 to 24 months out, or more.
“Time to Move” is the conversation a team should have when the leader has a specific target date for when they want to step back. In this case, we suggest seven to nine months’ advanced notice to the board.
3. What should communications look like to our stakeholders and community? It is a big deal when a nonprofit ED/CEO moves on, especially if they have been in the role a long time and have many established relationships inside and outside the organization. Stakeholders need assurance that your organization will continue to serve.
Your communications plan should begin with the board and staff, then moving quickly to major donors, clients, and partners before expanding to all donors and other stakeholders. The last step is a public press release, after you have told everyone connected to you directly.
4. How long does a search and leadership transition take? We suggest seven to nine months’ notice to board leadership but the search process itself generally takes three to four months. Your organization should allow time at the beginning to develop and execute a communications plan, and for the board to get organized and pull together a transition/search committee. At the end of the process, you also should allow time for the handoff and a learning period with the retiring ED/CEO.
Since these are sensitive conversations, we are offering private 30-minute calls to assist staff leaders in assembling their plan of action, or a meeting with board leaders about what it takes to successfully navigate an ED/CEO transition.