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Turnover: When It Rains, It Pours

Nonprofit transitions rarely happen in a vacuum. When a C-suite leader departs, there are often multiple open roles on the team. As noted in The Chronicle, “When staff are spread too thin, it can be difficult to maintain programming and generate resources to support the organization’s mission.”

Will multiple transitions jeopardize a search process, or will they become an asset to allow an incoming leader to make their mark?

The answer depends on the situation. In instances like this, boards and organizational leaders want to devote their full attention to a single effort. Organizations cannot put their mission on hold until seats are filled and a plan is in place. The search for a senior-level leader will almost certainly take longer than backfilling entry- or mid-level roles. Do you fill the CEO or CDO seat first so they can recruit a team? Or do you focus your efforts on roles that are easiest to fill to ensure continuity within the department? 

Success is much more likely with clarity about roles and accountability, a strong and data-driven plan, and a realistic preview for prospective candidates.  When having conversations with clients in these situations, we ask a few key questions:

Are there clear job descriptions and performance metrics for all roles?

Clear roles, responsibilities, and expectations are essential for success. This is particularly true during the onboarding process. If these elements are present, entry- and mid-level staff could be successfully onboarded and begin their roles without a CEO in place.  

In advancement teams, these roles often include events managers, communications specialists, development operations professionals, and advancement services staff. Gift officers may also be included, if an organization has well-established portfolios and processes for donor cultivation and stewardship. These are roles that also lend themselves to more creative staffing solutions, including interim support or long-term fractional or contracted support.

For CEO roles: Is there a strategic plan in place? For chief development officers and advancement leaders: Do you have a development plan in place? And how is progress being tracked?

Many nonprofit leaders choose to leave an organization at the conclusion of a strategic plan. The same could be said of advancement leaders at the end of a campaign or following the implementation of a development plan. In cases such as these, boards are faced with a dual challenge: hiring a new leader and creating a new strategic plan for the organization. Which comes first?  

Both strategic and development plans provide the opportunity for an executive to make their mark. At its best, the plan is a roadmap for deeper impact and includes clear measures for success. It can help guide the search for the next leader whose responsibility will be to lead the team in executing the plan. A strong, data-driven plan can be a powerful recruitment tool. Candidates will want a clear understanding of success. The strategic plan can set expectations for the new leader while offering them the flexibility to innovate and shape the direction and impact of an organization. 

What are the challenges? The opportunities? And how will you share them with prospective candidates?

Even with the best-laid plans, challenges arise. During our discovery process, the Benefactor Group search team works with organizations to align around a vision for the next leader and identify challenges they may face on the job. Providing a realistic preview of these challenges can be intimidating to a hiring manager or search committee. Will it scare away top candidates? In our experience, it does the opposite. Candidates appreciate transparency and are eager to confront challenges head-on.  

If you are aware of these challenges at the outset of a search process, it can also shape the direction of your search. For example, organizations that struggle to retain talent will be interested in a strong leader of people, with proven success providing opportunities for development and advancement within the organization.

While some nonprofit transitions are planned and give ample time for preparation, more often they are a surprise. Organizations are often confronted with multiple, simultaneous transitions or vacant seats. With the right support and an appreciative mindset, the challenges can be reframed as opportunities—for a new leader, for the organization, and for the people and communities it serves.

If you need to discuss interim leadership opportunities, providing realistic previews to candidates, or your options for support with an executive search process, the Benefactor team is here to help.

Adam guides clients through critical change moments, including leadership transitions. A member of Benefactor Group’s talent management practice …

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