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Stewarding relationships with major donors, board members, government contacts, and other significant stakeholders is one of the main responsibilities for any chief executive. Any change in leadership requires planning for how key relationships will be transferred to the new, incoming leadership, as well as managed during any transition period.

Consider three basic scenarios for Leadership Transitions:

  • Unplanned – a sudden situation where the organization unexpectedly learns the leader is departing, with little or no opportunity to prepare;
  • Planned – advance notice, with a hire from within; or
  • Planned – advance notice with the use of an interim executive before conducting an external search or hiring from within.

Any of these scenarios, or their variations, can place key relationships in jeopardy. Being thoughtful about how relationships will be stewarded in the midst of change is critical to preventing a loss of funders, partners, and other supporters. This article will look at some specific strategies for dealing with each of the above scenarios, but the one thing every healthy and successful relationship needs is clear, ongoing communication. Keeping people in the loop during a transition can ameliorate fears, avoid rumors, communicate preparedness, foster stability, galvanize support, and keep everyone focused on fulfilling the mission.

Unplanned Transition

A sudden, unexpected loss of leadership can create chaos, fear and uncertainty. An emergency succession plan – something every organization should have – will have the location of files with the names and contact information for every key relationship, i.e., contract officers, foundation program officers, major donors, heads of partner agencies, etc. It will also identify who will step in, or step up, in the case of an unplanned change in leadership.

Some first steps in this situation include:

  • Reassure the staff and advise them that the board and interim leadership will frame an appropriate announcement for public consumption. News of a personal emergency can be written internally; however, if there was malfeasance of any sort, legal counsel should first review any such announcement. Designate a spokesperson to handle all communication and do not allow staff to spread the news.
  • Convene the board’s executive committee, or call an emergency session of the board, to discuss the situation and develop a plan of action.
  • Have the board chair reach out to whomever the succession plan identifies as interim leadership and develop a communications plan for all stakeholders.
  • Have the board chair and/or other board members call funders and partners to let them know. It can be very reassuring to hear that the board is on top of any emergency situation.

Planned Transition – Internal Hire

During a planned transition with an internal hire, there is ideally more time to transfer stewardship of key relationships. Some strategies to consider include:

  • Give funders, partners and other stakeholders a preliminary notice about the transition before making a public announcement. This gives them a sense of being on the inside and may reveal concerns that can then be addressed in private.
  • Set up a series of private meetings, lunches, dinners, etc. where the exiting leader can actively introduce and transfer management of the relationships to the incoming leader. Consider including the board chair, so supporters see a united front.
  • Create opportunities for the incoming leader to be seen in his or her new role, e.g., transfer seats on a partner organization board to the incoming candidate or let the incoming leader attend conferences that were once attended by the exiting leader. This can also give the exiting leader opportunities to experience letting go of responsibilities that will soon no longer be theirs.

Planned Transition – Interim Hire

Ideally, relationships are based on a shared commitment to the mission; but the reality is that relationships are between people. During a leadership transition, many funders are, understandably, hesitant to spend the time and energy to develop a relationship with someone who will be gone in six to nine months. Some foundations may even have policies that prevent them from funding an organization with an Interim executive because they need to see stable leadership in place before making (or continue making) an investment. Some ways to address this include:

  • Keep funders apprised of the plan to hire an interim, cite best practices and the benefit of interim leadership assessments.
  • Have board members conduct interviews with key funders if an external environmental scan is being conducted to inform the search process, even when a consultant shepherds the process.
  • Develop a plan whereby the board chair, treasurer, other officers, and committee chairpersons can reach out to their comparable counterparts, such as Chair of the Program Committee to a contract officer and Board Chair or head of the Development Committee to individual major donors.

Include the Board and Senior Staff

When change is in the air, everyone feels it, and it is natural for board members and senior staff to consider leaving the organization during a leadership transition, especially with the loss of a strong, charismatic leader, who may be the reason many people got involved in the first place.
Some approaches here might include:

  • Use a succession planning consultant to conduct a series of confidential interviews aimed at identifying the leadership qualities, management skills and other desired attributes needed in new leadership.
  • Have the board chair reach out directly to fellow board members, senior staff, and major donors; she/he can listen to their concerns, promise to address them and ask for a commitment to stay the course during the transition.
  • Take a look at who else may be likely to leave and begin developing a replacement plan. For example, the CFO is also near retirement age and might leave soon after the current leadership exits. Is there someone in house to be trained up? Is an interim CFO an option? Some of this analysis can be part of an assessment conducted by the succession planning consultant or an interim director.
  • Employ other interims, if senior staff should leave during a transition, so that the incoming executive can build their own team.
  • Review board member and board officer term limits to see if there is likely to be a turnover in board membership or board leadership at the same time as the executive transition and plan accordingly.

Finally, recognize that everyone involved needs reassurance in the midst of change. This reassurance can be easily offered with a little thoughtfulness and clarity. You may not retain every relationship but you can minimize the risk of wholesale change just when the organization needs stability the most.

Frank Abdale, Abdale Consulting, LLC


Annie E. Casey Foundation

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