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Breaking the news: Telling grant funders the executive director is leaving

We are in a season of change across the nonprofit landscape. Numerous reports and studies have predicted a sector-wide shift in leadership that is now actively unfolding. Nonprofit executives of the baby boomer generation are steadily retiring and a new pipeline of leaders is stepping up. Add to this context troubling indicators of nonprofit CEO burnout, especially among leaders of color, and research that warns a high percentage of nonprofit executives have a plan to step down from their posts. Put together, the picture is clear that nonprofit organizations ought to be ready to manage an unexpected executive leadership change.

An executive transition brings multiple changes to manage and complicated decisions to make all at once. In the midst of these challenges, one area that must not be overlooked is the grant seeking effort.

In grant seeking, like any other area of fundraising, “people give to people.” When the executive director is leaving, the relationships that leader has built with funders could be at risk unless proactive steps are taken. Follow these suggestions to communicate with grant funders about the transition to preserve relationships and protect grant revenues for the organization.

Take stock of relationships

Prioritize time with the outgoing executive director to take stock of their relationships with foundations. Often it is the executive director who has had the most intimate and important contact with an organization’s most significant grant funders. Capture any valuable insights the executive director has about nuances in funder personality, preferences in communication style, and expectations or plans that have been seeded in past conversations.

Make sure to not only discuss the relationships that have been the closest and most positive, but also those that have been most tenuous. Also assess the terms of any active grants where you suspect the change in leadership could impact the organization’s ability to make good on grant agreements. In these situations, communicate with the funders to explore the appropriateness of an extension or other accommodation.

Determine the messenger

Funders to your organization should learn about the change in leadership directly, not through the grapevine. Develop a customized communication plan to promptly deliver the transition news to each significant funder in the organization’s recent grants history.

Your plan should consider who is the best messenger to deliver the news to each funder. Some relationships may warrant a direct call, email, or visit from the departing executive director, while others may be well served through an attentive contact from a development director or other staff member.

Craft a positive message

The communications plan should be customized to each funder, but the core message should consistently be simple, direct, proactive, and positive. Consider these tips for planning your message:

  • Stress the foundation’s importance to your organization and how that leads you to inform them about an important update.
  • Thank the funder for their past/ongoing investment and give reassurance that their funding will continue to be fully maximized towards the intended purpose or program.
  • If the outgoing executive director has been the main point of contact, provide clarity about who the funder can count on to communicate with in the interim.
  • If an interim executive director has been appointed, it may be appropriate to offer their contact information and the opportunity for a conversation.
  • Even if the leadership change is unexpected, abrupt, or disappointing, project a positive outlook that the organization is solid, the transition plan is sound, and that the arrival of a new leader will bring the organization promise and possibility.
  • As much as possible, give funders a sense of timing for the transition. Explain any decisions already made or plans that are in place. If the organization will be actively recruiting, share the timeline and the vision for new leadership. You may uncover recommendations of promising candidates.

Avoid disrupting relationships with grant funders by being proactive and planful to communicate a change in executive leadership. By respectfully informing them and appropriately involving them in the transition, you will reinforce that they are a trusted partner to the organization, now and into a new future.

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