Thursday, February 21, 2019

If we put mission first, what’s the impact on nonprofit staffing models?

Why do we get involved with nonprofit organizations?  To make our world a better place.  Running a nonprofit organization however, operations may not always align with mission.  So what if we all put mission first?

Along with colleagues at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, we’ve been looking at concepts of mission sustainability - the capacity of one or more organizations to consistently deliver mission results over time and through unexpected circumstances.  Adding this perspective might change how we, as a community, develop, retain, and seek nonprofit leaders. 

To keep delivering mission results, we suggest:
  • The work is bigger than one organization and its leaders 
  • Leaders need each other to succeed
  • Strong, intentionally connected leadership helps creates a healthy vibrant nonprofit ecosystem
  • On-going leadership continuity is important every day as well as making episodic transitions easier
  • Leaders include board members, EDs, and staff managers. 

In a system with this kind of thinking, we might build staff talent pipelines that welcome inter-agency career growth, and foster deliberate programs to value diversity, practice inclusion and achieve equity within leadership and staffing models across agencies.


In this kind of system, we might consider board recruitment in relation to other boards and their joint purpose with intentional strategies of placement after rolling off, cross memberships.  This helps joint advocacy, maintains mission knowledge and passion, and strengthens collaboration.

 Is this achievable? We don’t know.  But giving it some consideration could help you approach nonprofit staffing challenges from a different perspective.

Monday, December 3, 2018

An open letter to board chairs

Dear Board Chair,
You play a significant role in assuring the health and well-being of your organization. Your knowledge, expertise and experience in board governance help you know what needs to be done, by whom, how, when and with what resources. As leader of the board and working with your CEO (if you have one), you set the agenda, you provide information and context and you guide decision-making. Your leadership instills confidence for people to invest in your organization. These skills and attributes are critical to the success of your nonprofit.

So, it is important to be thinking about what you can do to assure that the person who follows you is prepared to lead. Does the Governance (or Nominating) Committee understand its very important role of identifying the next chairman? Are they working with the long view of building bench strength and future leadership for the organization so that there are good quality candidates from which to choose to chair the organization? Do they understand what kind of leader is needed at this time? Unfortunately, too often, these matters do not get the time and attention they deserve, and nonprofits are woefully unprepared for board leadership transitions.

When a new chair is elected, it is incumbent on you to help onboard this person to be most effective. She will need all the information that you can provide about the current state of your nonprofit and how you’ve pursued your roles and responsibilities. Ideally, you’ll share a current, detailed job description and discuss what’s going well, what needs attention and what’s coming up. Even if the person has been on the board, it doesn’t hurt to review minutes, financials and progress on the strategic plan. Introductions to key staff and stakeholders should be made in appropriate ways, from one-on-one meetings to staff gatherings to community receptions.

It is very important through this whole process to be thoughtful and thorough, not making assumptions and providing opportunities for lots of questions and clarification.

Managed well and smoothly, this board chair transition should prepare your organization to continue to grow and thrive. This will ultimately be a great legacy to you and your leadership!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Leadership Continuity should be a Strategic Priority

Turnover is part of the nonprofit culture, but we have very different expectations about that turnover depending on who’s leaving. Some turnover, like board term limits, is expected and promoted.  When an Executive Director leaves, we hope it happens “not on my watch.”  And staff turnover can be quite high, sometimes due to limited career opportunities in smaller organizations or, due to the lack of competitive pay or benefits, staff can’t always afford to stay.  

A high cost of turnover at all levels is the loss of operational continuity, institutional knowledge, and community relationships.   When an organization loses these, it inevitably loses some of its capacity to deliver mission results.  

Knowing that turnover will happen, leadership transition planning should be a strategic priority. This planning process is also a time to intentionally act on organizations’ commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity.   

What can organizations do?
  • Develop succession policies for the Executive Director and top management team. There are many decisions that can be made about how a transition will be handled before that transition occurs.
  •  Develop an emergency succession plan to name acting personnel.
  •  Cross-train the top management team and other staff to cover positions.
  •  Include staff and board members in the ED’s public appearances so that the organization’s reputation isn’t linked to a single person.
  •  Consider intentional board recruitment strategies with aligned or partner organizations so that when your board member terms out, she can move to a partner board supporting aligned mission work. 
Transition is still a unique window of opportunity.  It allows pause to step back and evaluate the organization’s work and consider additional skills sets that might be needed to realize strategic goals.

Regardless of whether transition is more of an opportunity or a loss of capacity or both at the same time, transition is always less disruptive when it’s supported by thoughtful policies and plans.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Interim CEOs can steady the ship

As Baby Boomers are finally able and willing to retire, nonprofit Boards are more and more open to preemptive succession planning – anticipating and readying the organization for a leadership transition before it’s imminent.  

In our work with Boards, however, the idea of utilizing an interim CEO is frequently dismissed.  We often hear:

“An interim won’t care about our mission the way our full-time CEO does.”

“Why put the organization through two changes in leadership?”

“It won’t take us long to find a new CEO and our staff leadership team is strong.”

In fact, Interim CEO’s tend to be seasoned nonprofit professionals who bring skills, knowledge, experience and a passion for the sector to their work.   An external Interim Director can be especially helpful when an organization has been lead by a long term CEO whose identity is intertwined with that of the organization.  Or when an organization is in crisis. 

Whenever there is a gap in leadership of more than a few weeks, an internal or external Interim CEO should be appointed.  Nonprofits are complex organizations navigating a challenging environment.  An organization without a designated leader is like a ship without a captain – one none of us would like to sail. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Joy of Ideas: New Thoughts on Leadership Succession and Executive Transition

In a moment of wishful thinking in 2017, I attended the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s national conference.  Wishful because I was looking for thoughtful conversation and to make connections with others who had questions similar to my own.  My wishes came true – not only for a few days, but with connections and conversations that have bloomed over the last 10 months with colleagues across the 

I have loved the exchange of ideas.  I’ve loved watching these ideas and conversations progress over the months.  While many of these ideas now feel firmly rooted in my head, I recently went back to files from earlier in the year and saw how much the ideas and conversation have changed and developed.
Let me share some of my Aha! moments – please?

Leadership succession and executive transition, though related, are separate and distinct.  Executive transition happens episodically with beginning and end points for each episode; leadership succession is on-going work that never ends.  Sounds obvious, but I’ve seen organizations and consultants repeatedly lump these together and then neither one is done well.  We haven’t even had common language to talk about this – but that’s changing!

Succession = sustainability.  Succession isn’t about finding the next leader or the process to do so, it’s about strengthening an organization and its leadership.  That leadership team includes the ED, staff, and board leaders.

Strategic planning is a great stepping off point for leadership succession and sustainability.  Once an organization knows what it wants to focus on and prioritize, we need to make sure that the right people are there and have the right skills.  And that we’re preparing those people for future leadership positions.

Mission is more important than the organization.  We always say that we’re not about perpetuating the organization, but I’ve seen very few cases where organizations truly put mission above the organization.  Changing that lens powerfully changes thoughts on strategy, people, and sustainability.

Leadership succession is a community challenge – not an organizational challenge.  Nonprofits who are afraid of losing their talented staff to other nonprofits are thinking too small.  Consider how different the nonprofit sector might look if your organization trained the leaders of all the other organizations that serve a similar mission?  If board members who are passionate about a mission move intentionally and in a coordinated way between aligned agencies?

The conversation continues at a national level with consultants, capacity builders, funders and researchers. We’re positioning the conversations to come together this October in Hartford, CT at the next Alliance for Nonprofit Management conference.

So what do you think??  Are these ideas crazy?  Could we ever achieve them?  Argue with me, join the conversation – it’s a lot of fun!

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Who needs minutes? Everyone!

Too many boards and committees neglect minutes, treat them as an afterthought, just something to get done because it is required. Typically, minutes are sent a few days before the next board meeting with the agenda. The assumption is that board members will read them in advance and some do, some don’t. And then, at the beginning of the meeting the minutes are approved with little attention, often by many who haven’t even taken the time to read them, just as a matter of pro forma.

Believe it or not, minutes can actually play a significant role in whether an organization is standing still or getting stronger and moving forward. Why is that?

First and foremost, minutes are legal documents required of all corporations and they are a permanent record of what boards have done and plan to do. As such, minutes can help protect board members from individual liability.

Minutes also serve as a reminder to board members and staff regarding the decisions that have been made, usually aligned with specific action steps. Using minutes properly, they keep people on task and hold people accountable as to what they’ve agreed to do. This is why minutes should be written and distributed within days of a meeting, not just before the next one. And they should contain sufficient information recording discussion and decisions made as to provide context and understanding without documenting everything verbatim.

Minutes also serve as a historical record, proving very beneficial to those board members and staff in the future who want to know what decisions were made, why and what the outcomes were.

When serving as secretary or scribe, keep in mind how will this document be helpful to readers – what do they need to know and why? How might they use this information? Are votes properly conducted and counted? And when reading the minutes as a board or staff member, think critically about whether this document accurately reflects what happened in the meeting. Keep in mind your role and responsibility in carrying out the decisions that were made. You might even have questions and/or thoughts that are prompted by the minutes that need to be addressed in the upcoming meeting.

We hope this has encouraged you to think about minutes a little differently next time. Who knows? Maybe we’ve inspired you to step up to the role of secretary of your organization!  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A culture of shared leadership?

There are a number of critical factors that contribute to a strong and resilient nonprofit organization. Succession planning is certainly one of these. However, even if you have a good succession plan, it won’t be helpful if other areas of your organization are weak.

Among the other critical factors are: a relevant and focused mission; good governance by an engaged, experienced board; competent, well-paid staff; effective programming; diversified development strategies with ongoing stewardship; community outreach and partnerships; open and frequent communication with stakeholders; a strategic framework that provides direction while also being adaptable to changing times; and most importantly, a culture of shared leadership to keep the organization on track.

What do we mean about “a culture of shared leadership”? Ideally, this is not about one or a few individuals. Rather, it is a culture where people are given opportunities to participate in meaningful ways, contributing both independently and collectively in a coordinated fashion, while continually developing their leadership skills to take on ever more challenging roles and responsibilities.  It is also a culture where people listen, communicate, train, mentor, guide, inspire, encourage, support, challenge and trust each other.

When this is done right, the potential for a negative impact of a leader’s departure is minimized as there are people who are prepared to step in and manage during this period of change. On the contrary, when leadership is concentrated in one or a few individuals, their departures can lead to significant disruption, confusion and potential serious set-backs in service delivery, funding, and impact.

How would you begin this cultural shift? Working with your team, you’ll want to start by giving serious consideration to how your organization is operating now and how it can be improved, including a good look at your organizational chart and job descriptions. How and when information is shared and the frequency of and pathways for communication are critical.  Most likely, to build a culture of leadership development will require the allocation of time and money into professional development, cross-training, workshops and conferences, mentoring and more. That said, studies show this is well worth the investment as people who are valued as leaders or potential leaders tend to contribute more and stay in their jobs longer.

(By the way, much of this applies to boards as well!)

Stanford Social Innovation Review is sponsoring a webinar focusing on this topic, “The Leadership Development Deficit: How to Build Your Talent Pipeline” on June 6th. Click here to find out more about it.