Staffing Transitions: Ask the Grant Makers

For an organization facing an executive director transition, it is crucial to manage the impact on the grant seeking program. What are the right steps to communicate the leadership change? We decided to consult the best possible resources: grant makers themselves! Read on for insights from four regional foundation leaders on mindfully maintaining strong relationships with funders when moving from one executive leader to the next.

Take healthy steps before transition

The right time to begin thinking about executive transition is before it happens. Preparing for a change in leadership should be a component of an organization’s overall planning for the future. “Funders want to see that an organization has a succession plan, yet many nonprofits do not,” observes Jennifer Coleman, Senior Program Officer for the Arts for The George Gund Foundation. Organizational leaders can feel overwhelmed or intimidated to put these plans in place, so Jennifer recommends approaching the task with a positive mindset: “Think to yourself, ‘what if I win the lottery and move to Fiji? What plans would I want to be sure are in place so the organization can handle my departure in a reasonable manner?'”

Along with having a clear plan, an organization should commit to fostering a healthy culture. Harold Brown, Vice President of Community Strategies for the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, observes that funders are concerned about high rates of nonprofit employee burnout, especially at the executive level, and want to see organizations take steps to cultivate a workplace that actively prevents burnout and turnover in the first place. “To avoid leadership interruptions, it’s important that organizations care for their leaders with sufficient opportunities for rest and recognition,” he says.

Harold also suggests that organizations ought to be guided by a broad leadership team and not be overly reliant on a single leader. “We see organizations put so much emphasis on one individual,” he says. Binding an organization’s identity and reputation to the executive director alone can create a vulnerability. Executive directors should strive to create relationship points and visible leadership opportunities for other senior staff and board members, so grant makers and stakeholders recognize the strength and stability of the organization as a whole.

Communicate during transition

The organization should communicate proactively with funders about an executive leadership departure. “Change is inevitable,” says Richard Clark, Vice President of the John P. Murphy Foundation and the Kulas Foundation. “We are rarely surprised by transitions, but we want to be informed.”

An unexpected departure should be communicated proactively. “Especially if the organization is a major grant recipient, I expect to be informed directly, personally, and quickly,” Richard says. “And if the circumstances are extraordinary, such as if an executive director resigns or is terminated abruptly, we would expect a phone call from a C-level executive or Board Chair within 24 hours of the event.”

Debra Hershey Guren, President and CEO of The Hershey Foundation, agrees that grantees should communicate promptly. “The news should never come to us through the grapevine,” Debra warns. “That’s the worst, because we are supposed to be partners.” Debra advises that the news may be appropriate coming via email or letter, “but,” she says, “I find that a call feels especially personal, like our relationship matters, especially if the situation is delicate.”

When a departure can be anticipated in advance, for example if the executive director is retiring, the organization can be particularly planful. Take advantage of existing pulses of communication with funders. “If an annual site visit with the foundation is soon to take place, make it part of the meeting agenda to discuss the leadership change and how the organization is moving forward,” says Jennifer Coleman. “If we learn after the departure about the meeting, it may look like an afterthought and put up a red flag.”

Provide foundation contacts with certainty about how communication will be managed during the leadership change. If the transition timeline can support it, reassure funders that the exiting and incoming leaders will overlap, share knowledge, and work together. If there is an inevitable gap between the outgoing executive director and his or her successor, provide an alternate contact whom funders can count on until the new leader is in place.

Look ahead to future transition

When the new executive director starts, it isn’t necessary to cram introductory meetings with every single foundation contact into their calendar. Debra Hershey Guren explains that it can be unrealistic for a foundation leader to immediately free up his or her calendar for a visit. She recommends that an introductory email or mailing from the new executive director is appropriately informative without creating unnecessary pressure. And certainly do invite foundation contacts to any welcome event or reception that is planned to introduce the new leader within the community.

Don’t forget that completing the end of the immediate transition marks the need to begin planning for future transition. “Don’t overlook the opportunity of fresh leadership to explore updates to the organization’s succession plans,” says Jennifer Coleman. However, cut yourself a break: waiting to begin this work for six or twelve months is perfectly appropriate. “It’s fair to allow the new leader time to settle in and make his or her mark,” Jennifer suggests.

By prioritizing relationships with funders before, during, and after an executive transition, your nonprofit will not only survive the change, but be set up for stronger funding partnerships in the future.

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