In this webinar, Andy Robinson will help you understand the value of succession planning to nonprofits (and the risks of poor or non-existent transition plans).

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right, Andy, is it okay if I go ahead and get it started, my friend?

Andy: Steven, take it away.

Steven: All right, great. Well, good afternoon, everyone, on the East Coast, and good morning if you are on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar, “Nonprofit Succession Planning: Leading by Sharing Power.” And my name is Steven Shattuck, and I am the Chief Engagement Officer over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion as always.

And just a couple of housekeeping items for you all before we get going here, I just want to let you all know that we are recording this presentation, and we will be sharing that recording as well as the slides later on this afternoon. You should already have the slides but you didn’t get them, don’t worry I’ll get those to you when I send out the recording this afternoon. So if you have to leave early, if you have a meeting later on and can’t stay for the whole thing, don’t worry, I’ll get that recording in your hands for sure.

And most importantly, as you’re listening today, please, please feel free to use that chat box right there on your webinar screen. We’re going to answer questions as we go along. We got time at the end for questions. We love answering questions. We love for it to be interactive on these webinars. So do not be shy. Don’t sit on those hands. You can chat it in. You can tweet it over. I’ll keep an eye on Twitter for questions as well. So send them our way for sure.

And one last bit of housekeeping, if you have any trouble with the audio through your computer speakers, through your headphones, if you have any trouble, try dialing in by phone before you totally give up on us. We find that the phone audio is usually pretty solid, at least compared to the computer audio. So if you need to do that, if that’ll be comfortable for you, there’s a phone number in the email from ReadyTalk that went out about an hour or so ago. So try that before you chuck that computer out the window.

And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, I just want to say an extra-special welcome to you folks. Great to have you here. We love doing these webinars. We’ve been doing these webinars every single Thursday for six years. Honestly, we only missed a couple of Thursdays throughout the year. Yeah, this is great. So we’d love to see you again on another session. And if you are interested in what Bloomerang does, check out our website. We are a provider of donor management software that people seem like, at least according to the reviews. So check that out. Don’t do that now. Wait at least an hour, because you all are in for a real treat.

I have Andy Robinson here from beautiful northern Vermont, highly recommended, first-time guest, although I feel bad we haven’t had him before. I’ve been getting to know him over the last few weeks as we’ve been planning this. Very excited. Andy, how are you doing? Are you doing okay? Thanks for being here.

Andy: I am doing great, Steven. Thank you for having me.

Steven: This is great. I’m so excited. I’m excited for the topic. I’m excited for you, Andy. Highly recommended from some of my favorite people. Rachael Muir, Andrea Kihlstedt, Amy Eisenstein all vouched for this gentleman here. And he’s going to teach you all about succession planning, which is really important, really, really important, I would say, like, top three important thing to cover on a webinar for sure.

I just want to brag on real quick, not very long. Been doing this a long time, almost 40 years’ experience. Prolific writer, written a lot of books, “Grassroots Grants” and “Selling Social Change,” “How to Raise $500 to $5,000 from Almost Anyone.” So a lot of kind of the board fundraising, a lot of major gifts, works a lot with environmental and social justice type of organization. So if that’s you, you may hear some very familiar anecdotes as we listen along here. But definitely knows his stuff. I could talk for days about Andy’s CV, but I would rather hear him talk about succession planning. So, Andy, I am going to turn it over to, my friend. So take it away. The floor is yours.

Andy: Thank you so much. So let me do a little shout out back to Steven. First of all, Chief Engagement Officer is perhaps the best title ever. So congratulations.

Steven: Thank you.

Andy: And I have to say, folks, this dude is organized, he’s enthusiastic, he’s on top of it. And if everybody working at Bloomerang has it together like you do, Steven, I’m guessing it’s a pretty good place to work.

Steven: Thank you.

Andy: So thank you for hosting this. And six years of Thursdays is amazing. And congratulations on your longevity.

So today’s topic is succession planning. And, you know, first thing I’m curious about is what hat or hats are you wearing here. So I’m going to put up the first poll of the day. We’ve got three polls we’re going to do as we go through this. And with the understanding that some of you may be wearing multiple hats and have multiple roles, I’m curious about your primary role. Coming into this conversation, you know, who are you? What’s with your identity for this?

So here’s the poll. It’s pretty straightforward. You go ahead and you click the one that’s relevant to you. And, you know, as you can see on the screen, this all happens in real time, so that’s pretty great.

Steven, do we get a bar graph or anything like that?

Steven: Yeah. Andy, if you click the Skip to Results, it will bring up the bar graph for you.

Andy: Awesome, okay. That’s true. I have the control, don’t I? I’ll give you guys, like, another 10, 20 seconds on this. Looking good. All right. So we’re going to close it. Here we go. Executive directors, about 38%. The other is interesting. We got a few founders in the room. Shout out to the founders. Board members, consultants, and we got like one funder or donor. So thank you for being here, too.

And this is helpful to me because it gives me a sense of who’s in the room, and maybe that changes the content a little bit based on who’s here, especially those of you who are here today as volunteers or board members and you’re doing this on your own time. That’s awesome, and we thank you very much for being with us.

So one of the questions you have to wrestle with as a part of this succession planning conversation is about organizational lifespan. There are some groups that are designed to be here forever. For example, if you’re a hospital, my guess is people are always going to need healing, right? That work doesn’t go away. But there are some organizations that I think are meant to solve a problem and go out of business.

And, you know, an example of this might be if you’re running a domestic violence shelter, and thank you for that work if you’re doing that, your job eventually is to work yourself out of a job. You want to live in a community and live in a society where we don’t have domestic violence. So you might say, you know, “Our job is to be out of business in one generation or two generations,” and it’s obviously not tomorrow, but you were designed to win and declare victory.

And there are examples of this in our lifespan, in our lifetime. At least I’m old enough, this is my lifetime. Many of you have heard of the March of Dimes. The March of Dimes started to end polio. That was their initial mission, was to eradicate polio. And then we got the various vaccines, and at least in the U.S., polio was eradicated. And they all looked at each other, and they said, “What do we do now?” And one option for them was to go out of business and declare victory. What they chose to do was to shift their mission, and they were working on prenatal care, and, you know, they’ve done important work for the 50 years since. But victory is possible.

So I think this is sort of the first question I would have you think about as we’re talking about succession planning, is what’s the lifespan of your organization? And if you plan to retire the organization at some point, what’s your exit strategy? Like, how are you going to do that?

Now I want to tell you what I think is perhaps a sad story. In 1986, I killed my first nonprofit organization. And I have to say I’m not proud of this story, I don’t tell it with glee, but I think it’s instructive. And the situation looked like this. We were, at first, an all-volunteer organization, which is how nearly every nonprofit starts, as a group of volunteers. And we did a lot of programming. And I was a board member. I was like 26 years old. And I will tell you, this is the best board I have ever been on, then or since.

And we got to the point where we said, “We can have staff, right? Like, what could staff do? And can we raise the money? And think of all the work we could do if someone was paying attention as their day job.” And I raised my hand, and I said, “I think I could do this.” And they’re like, “Yeah, you’d be good.” So, you know, they hired me, and I, in many ways, was excellent. I did more programming. I raised a lot of money. I took the organization in some really interesting directions. But I sort of did everything.

And what happened was that all these really engaged board members started to back away, and then they backed away, and then they backed away further. And when I left the organization after about two years, it basically dissolved. There wasn’t anything left. And the problem was that I had become the organization.

So, you know, as it says here, I think I failed the first test of leadership, which is how do I not do everything myself. How do I actually empower and support and train and develop other people so they can take leadership?

So to quote my friend Kim Klein, some of you may have had the privilege to work with Kim. She’s a wonderful trainer and author and fundraising guru. And I’m not sure I got the quote exactly right, but what she says is, “When you walk in the door in the morning, first thing you should ask yourself is, ‘What am I going to do today to replace myself?'”

So this is the succession planning mindset. And I think if you are the leader of an organization, it’s really important to think this way. And if you’re not the leader, it doesn’t hurt to think this way, because, frankly, none of us are irreplaceable. And if we get in a position where we become irreplaceable, our organizations are damaged by that, because, you know, who knows when we’re going to leave. I mean, we could leave on a plan, or we could have an accident or an illness, or somebody has to move out of town quickly.

So one of the things we’ll discuss as we go forward is the idea that there are two types of succession plans. There is the contingency plan, the what-happens-if-there’s-an-emergency plan. That’s the first part. And the second part is the longer term leadership transition succession, passing-it-on-to-somebody-else-in-better-shape-than-you-found-it plan.

So here’s some interesting data. CompassPoint is a wonderful organization based in the Bay Area that does training and facilitation and consulting, also research, and they did a pretty big national survey on this about seven, eight years ago. And it says here, what they found was that about three-quarters of nonprofit executives expected to leave within five years.

There was a more recent study that was done in New England by the Boston Foundation and Third Sector New England, which is now called TSNE MissionWorks, and they came up with roughly the same data but with shorter time frame. About three-quarters of a leadership, in which this case we’re talking board and executive staff as well, expected to be gone within two or three years, by 2020. And then they asked the question, are you planning for this? Do you have a succession plan? And so shockingly but not surprisingly, 78% of group says, no, we don’t have a plan for that. So we have seen this wave coming for a long time, and yet most of our organizations are not actually thinking about how are we going to deal with this.

So this leads me to my second question for you, guys. Think about your own position. Again, wear the same hat you wore earlier. I’m the executive director, I’m the founder, I’m a volunteer, I’m a staff member, whatever your role is, how long do you expect to remain in your current position? And just so we’re clear, you may want to stay within the same organization and move to a different position, but that still counts as a change.

So I’ll put this up and let’s see what we’ve got. How long do you plan to be in your current job? We’ll see what we get here. Steven, should I ask you this question, how long you want to be in your current job?

Steven: I would say, at Bloomerang, as long as they’ll have me.

Andy: Good. I’m glad you’re happy there. It’s a good thing.

Yeah, so this is interesting, folks. I’ll close it in the second here. But what I’m seeing here mirrors the data pretty closely. All right. Here we go. So if we’re talking less than three years, half of the people on this call expect to be doing something different. That’s big. And if we’re expanding it to three to five years, and we’re including the whole, then again we’re in the same zone. We’re about 75% of you expect to be moving on within the next 5 years. Lacking a plan, we improvise. And improvise isn’t inherently terrible, but my experience is it’s better to have a plan and improvise around that than to be doing 100% improvisation.

So part of the question here is how we change and grow as an organization. And the leaders that you need at the beginning when you start, and the skill set that they have, and what they bring to the table is pretty different with a mature organization. And so the idea that the leader we have when we start is the same leader that’s going to be effective 10 or 15 or 20 years later, it’s pretty challenging.

I want to teach you a way to think about this. This is a fairly classic model of thinking about how organizations change and grow over time. And there are many variations on this. This is one that I like because it’s simple. It’s called the four stages. I got this from a group called the Institute for Conservation Leadership, which I get to work with quite often, and I believe they adapted it from a man named Karl Mathiasen, who was an organizational development guru, very active for many years, passed away probably the last two or three years.

So at one end, on the left, is we have the volunteer-based organization. So these are the kitchen table groups, right? They start literally around somebody’s kitchen table. And they’re all volunteers. They do everything. They have no staff. They’re doing it for love and passion, and certainly no money. And it’s worth noting that a lot of groups exist in this phase forever. About half of the nonprofits in the U.S. are not chartered, registered 501(c)(3) organizations. They’re informal collections of people. And a lot of good stuff happens at this most grassroots of levels.

Sometimes what happens is that people will hire that first staff member and will open the office and will get a website and will get business cards, and it’s known as the leap. It’s sort of where we take that big jump. It’s called the leap because it’s scary. And sometimes you make the cross, sometimes you don’t. The story I told you at the beginning was an example of a group that took the leap and didn’t quite make it to the other side.

Sometimes we move to the next stage, it’s called shared governance, sometimes it’s called shared leadership. It’s the idea that we have a balance of power between the staff and the board, people know their roles well, there might be enough staff people that people can specialize and do specific jobs, sort of a sweet spot for a lot of organizations.

And then down on the right, we have institutions. And I think, you know, what institutions are. They’re big. They’re muscular. They have a lot of power. They usually have quite a bit of money. And they also have challenges as well. And sometimes what I do, and this is another version of a succession planning exercise, sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll lay this out on the floor, like with blue tape, and I’ll have people literally stand along the line, where would you put your organization now based on this model? And then I’ll say to them, if we all gathered five years from now, where would you like to be? Would you like to be in the same place? Are you trying to move down the line in one direction or the other?

And usually people are moving left to right. They want to be more muscular. They want to have more impact. They want to do more stuff. And they perceive that if they’re moving from left to right on this chart, they are getting bigger and having more impact. And that’s usually true. But then the question I have to ask them is, do you have the leadership now it’s going to take you to that next place? Are you actually consciously designing and recruiting and developing the leadership skills that will get you from here to there?

And at the risk of being redundant, I will say it again, the skills you need as an all-volunteer organization to run something of that size and that scale is quite different from the skills you need as you’re moving down the line. And so we have to be building and designing for where we want to be when we grow up, which is probably different from where we are now.

So I’m going to pause for a minute, Steven. And if you’ve got anything coming up on chat, questions, I would love to hear what people are saying if there’s anything I can answer at this stage.

Steven: Doesn’t look like there’s been any questions yet. Looks like most people just kind of responding to your poll. But, folks, please do ask questions as we go along, because we’d love to answer them right away while we’re still on the topic. Don’t be shy.

Andy: Yeah. So I have some founders in the room. And founders are famous. Founders start things, right? They stir the drink. They make stuff happen, which is beautiful. And then as many of, you know, there’s this thing called founder’s disease or founder’s syndrome or founderitis and as many names. And often founders will recreate the organization in their own image, and it will come with whatever strengths and commitment and passion they bring, but it will also come with whatever challenges or blind spots that they bring.

So the transition from founders to the next round of leadership is often challenging. And there certainly are founders who have a lot of humility and step back gracefully, which is a beautiful thing. And I will also say, as a consultant, I feel like a lot of my work over the years has been trying to help manage that transition when it went sideways. So, you know, we need founders, and we need them badly. And if you’re one of those folks, I would have to say to you, just be aware of what your limitations are, and you want to design your organization and empower other people to lead quickly as you can, I mean, early in the process. And when there’s a sense of shared ownership and collective ownership, then it’s much easier to get to that next stage, whatever it is.

So let’s talk about the boomers for a minute. I am boomer. I’m approaching 62 years old. So I was born in the heart of the baby boom. And I got to tell you, there’s a lot of entrenched leadership in nonprofit world where there are boomers who have reached a certain stage, often they’re in leadership, and they’re dug in pretty good. And they’ve often done wonderful work. But there is this next generation, and they’re coming up, and they’re coming up fast, and some of them are bumping up against the boomer glass ceiling. So I don’t know that we talk about this enough, but I think there has to be a process or a conversation or something to say to the folks, think about what you’re going to leave behind, and think about when the best time is to do that.

And I’ve even seen situations where senior leadership has stepped back and taken a different position in the organization. An executive director might go back to being a program person or go step into a fundraising role or an outreach role and let somebody else lead the organization. It doesn’t necessarily mean retirement, though it certainly could mean that. It could mean a different role or perhaps another life in another organization. So again, I don’t know who’s on the call. I’m not in a position to call anybody out personally. I don’t know that I would do that. But this is an opportunity for self-reflection. And if you’re one of those people, think again about what am I leaving behind here.

Now the question, this is sort of homework coming out of this. What are the leadership skills that we need, maybe we have, maybe we need to develop, that’s going to take our group to the next place? And, you know, the next piece of that is how are we going to get those skills. Are we going to recruit for that? Are we going to learn them ourselves? Succession planning, I think, is as much about building a skill set as it is about finding new people.

And then the second question here, and I’m going to jump into this in a minute, is what barriers get in the way of us doing this well? So this is the questions to have a conversation with. Like, if we’re not doing succession planning actively or thoughtfully or at all, why not? Like, what’s getting in the way?

I will propose that there are probably three barriers here. One barrier is the personal stuff. It’s the hanging on really tight. There are leaders and founders are one version of this but not the only version who is really think their way is the best way, and that’s how they lead. And I think where this comes from is a lack of trust or perhaps a fear that something’s going to go wrong and they might get blamed for it.

The second level here is organizational. Many, many, many organizations are under-resourced, understaffed. They are running around putting out fires. They’re dealing with the daily crises. And the idea that we have to look 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 years down the road and try and envision the future and design to that future, that takes some bandwidth. That’s not easy. So, you know, I’m sympathetic and compassionate for the groups that can’t do this because they don’t have the time and the energy. And I got to say, you got to do it anyway.

There’s another piece to this, which is I think part of succession planning, is asking for help and saying, you know, if you’re the leader, saying, “I don’t know how to do everything here,” or “This is not my strongest skill. Somebody help me develop this skill.” And putting yourself in a more vulnerable or humble position is I think part of this. So there’s an attitude that comes with this. Lacking that attitude, and that attitude of is one of humility and modesty, this job becomes much more difficult.

So I’m going to give you one more poll, and then we’re going to dive into the question bag here in a minute. I want you to imagine a spectrum. Again, I like these exercises where I line people up. It’s hard to do on a webinar, but you can envision us all standing in a line or a semicircle. And I’m going to give you some places to stand along this line, and it has to do with your own personal leadership style when you’re working with other people.

So the poll is coming, but here are the questions. You know, where would you stand on that spectrum? At one end of the spectrum is, you know what, I’m just going to do it myself, it’s easier. And at the other end of the spectrum is I’m going to hand off as much as I can, and I’m going to empower others. And there are sort of stages in between that you can read here. So I want you to think about your own personal leadership style, and let’s see where you land on this next poll.

And of course, no one knows who is who, so, you know, self-revealing here isn’t particularly scary. Where would you put yourself on this spectrum? And I have to tell you, I mean, this is me just me, you know, full disclosure, I’m one of those people where my default setting is, you know what, I’ll just do it myself, it’s easier. And what’s interesting for me professionally is I am forcing myself down to the bottom little by little as a consultant, as a facilitator, as a trainer. My whole gig now is empowering other people in trying to get out of the way. So I am working against my own personality type.

But I will say, if you’re one of those people who’s at the top where it’s I’ll do it myself, that’s the burnout zone, right? I mean, that’s where the martyrs all go. And so, you know, we’re going to talk a little bit in a minute about your own personal succession plan. Part of mine is shifting where I am on this.

So this is pretty diverse here. Yeah, I think this is reflective of the sort of groups and people that I work with. And, you know, one of the conversations to have with yourself and perhaps your colleagues is where do we want to be on this spectrum? What’s going to serve our organization best?

All right. Steven, let’s dip into the question bag. Do you have anything that’s jumping out of you that you think we should address?

Steven: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of good ones here. So our last request definitely got people thinking here. A lot of people asked kind of a variation of the same question, Andy, which is who decides when it’s time for maybe the founder or the ED to move along. If they themselves aren’t speaking up, is it as the board, is it chairman of the board? You know, who do you think should be able to make that call?

Andy: Yeah, well, hopefully, it doesn’t come down to the somebody going up to somebody else and saying, “You’re fired,” right? I don’t think that’s the optimal way to do this. What I would, you know, sort of being technical and a little bit legalistic here just to start this, the board of a nonprofit, the board members, are the legal owners of the corporation. And if you, you know, if you have a founder who has become the executive director, they work for the board. And the board has the power to hire, fire, supervise, manage that person. So that’s legalistic. You know, the dynamics may be different. If you have a founder who’s been there for 15 years, that person probably has most of the power. And so it can be challenging.

Sometimes what drives this is external. I mean, it might be funders talking to the person in power or some of the board members saying, “From our perspective, you guys are in a rut, and you need to think a little differently,” or it might be donors, or it might be partners. You know, if you if you’re a group that gets government funding, it might be somebody in one of the government agencies that’s starting to whisper and say, “You know, maybe something different needs to happen here.”

And it’s hard for us to be self-aware enough to know when our time has come, right? That’s difficult. So I think it’s a combination of all the things that I’ve said. Sometimes it’s the more junior staff who are raising this. But let’s acknowledge this is delicate, and I’m going to do more on this as we go forward, but it’s a great question, and I don’t have a standard answer because there isn’t one.

Steven, you got another one for me?

Steven: Yeah. Here’s one from Carol, it’s kind of interesting. An easy stepping down but staying with the organization, maybe moving into a different role that’s not the leadership role, any experience with that? Any of you seen that happen, and has it worked well, has it not? Have they been able to really pass that baton if they stay with the organization? Ever seen that happen?

Andy: I have. Now, you know, frankly, this happens . . . how do I say this. This goes badly more often than it goes well. And so Carol is wise there [inaudible 00:29:47], right? But I’ll give you a great example of when it went well. I’m based in Vermont. One of our local organizations here, which is pretty much an institution in the state is the Vermont Land Trust, and they are the statewide Conservation Land Trust. And some years ago, their executive director, who had been there for years, stepped down and took what was essentially a donor outreach position, and the person who had been deputy director also for years stepped up. The two of them had a good working relationship. And the former ED stayed for I think another three years maybe and did donor stewardship and donor cultivation and special projects, and it worked out quite well for them.

I can think of another group in Vermont, where a very longtime executive director stepped down but stayed on for another year and a half, two years, to manage the capital campaign that they were in the middle of and did that as staff. And it was essentially a time-limited situation. It wasn’t perpetual. But that worked out really well for them, because that person continued to have strong relationships with a lot of the donors. So the answer is, yeah, it can work. It can also go really badly so, you know, the caution around that is legitimate, but I have seen it work.

All right. So I’m going to get into the nuts and bolts of the plan a little bit here. And we mentioned earlier, ultimately, I think you need two plans. You need one that’s the emergency plan. If so-and-so goes to the hospital or if so-and-so has to move out of state rapidly to take care of a parent who got sick or whatever it is, what’s your backup plan? And most groups can do this in a way that’s not scary because it doesn’t really threaten anybody’s power. We’re just doing emergency planning here.

Perhaps the more challenging one is the longer term leadership succession plan, which is are we building the pipeline of leaders who can come in and take over this organization. And, you know, one question that always comes up is, are we going to promote from within, is there someone who’s the heir apparent, or are we going to go outside and look? And there are pros and cons, but it’s good to have that conversation before you need to have that conversation.

Things that you want to be thinking about as you’re designing this plan. And in some ways, this is sort of a table of contents. You’d want to adjust this somewhat, but there’s a couple of slides here for what I think one would want to include in a succession plan.

Calendar or timeline, you know. And so I think you have to sit down with that longtime executive director at some point and say, “What’s your long-term plan? How many years do you expect to work here? Are you thinking about retirement? When might that happen? We need to plan for that.” Now, you know, frankly, nobody wants to be a lame duck, right, so that can be a challenging conversation, but I think it’s one that has to be had.

Second bullet, I already mentioned, are we actually going to bring someone up from the inside or do we consciously think we’re going to go outside and look for someone new with new perspective? How will those roles change? How do we design for that?

Then there’s an interesting question about interim executive directors. Now when I started coming up in this work, and, you know, Steven said it was like 40 years ago, that was not a thing. That was not a job title. There weren’t people who did that. But if you’re in a bigger city now, it’s harder to find in a rural area, but if you’re in a bigger city, there are people who make their living as serial interim executive directors. And I’ve even seen interim development directors who came in to clean up a fundraising shop or boost it up before handing it off to the next person. And the interim job is usually 6 months, 12 months, 18 months while the organization thinks about what’s going to happen during its next phase.

And the nice thing about this, it’s not for every organization, but the nice thing about this is this person comes in with a very fresh eye and sometimes can make changes that nobody inside the organization has the wisdom or the courage or the vision to make. So that’s an option, and it’s something to think about. You know, the classic thing is there’s often an internal interim executive director who’s holding the fort till you hire somebody, and that’s a different sort of thing, but you’d also think about that as an option.

You need a communications plan, right? You need to share this externally. The world needs to know, as you’re developing this plan, certainly as you’re implementing the plan, how you’re going to talk about it. Transitions do cost money, and so you’re going to want to think about, for example, if we have overlapping salaries, if we have two people holding down essentially the same position during a training period, we got to pay for that. So what’s this going to cost, and where’s the money going to come from?

I think the relationship transition plan is huge. One of the things that happens if you have long-term leaders is they tend to gather all the relationships into their pockets. And they know the funders, and they know the donors, and they know the partners. And the partners think about, oh, that’s Sally’s organization, or that’s Jose’s organization, and they really think about it as belonging to that person. And if that person leaves, you are rebuilding relationships from scratch. So you want to have a longer-term process to do that.

And then finally here, let’s have a party. I have seen long-term leaders forced out, which is, you know, never pleasant but sometimes necessary. Even in those circumstances, especially in those circumstances, you want to have some sort of celebration to acknowledge the time and effort and years and work that they put in.

So this is one of my favorite quotes on this, “Part of leading well is leaving well.” And it’s something that we all want to be thinking about. Like, how am I going to leave this place well? Am I going to leave this in better shape than I found it? And what’s the process for that? So this, again, requires some humility and some foresight, but those are good things to have.

So question for you here. Do you have a personal exit strategy? I’ve already got the data that says half of you plan to be gone in the next three years off to some other role or some other organization or some other chapter in your life. How are you getting from here to there?

So I want to tell you to personal exit strategy stories from my own life. This is like 25 years ago. I started my consulting business. And the way I did it was . . . and I had day jobs to that point, right? I had worked in five different nonprofits primarily doing fundraising, and in this case I was development director at this organization, had been there for several years.

And I went to my boss one day, and I said, “I’m giving you two years notice.” He looks at me like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, you know, I’m going to start a consulting business. I’m going to teach people about fundraising, and I’m going to do facilitation, and I’m going to do it gradually. My plan, if you approve this, is I’m going to go to four days a week for the next year, because I think I can do my job in four days, and I’m going to start building up my practice on the side. And then when we get to year two, we’re going to hire my successor, I’m going to drop down to half time. We’re going to bring this person on four or five days a week based on what we can afford, and I’m going to have an entire year to train somebody to do what I do here. And while I’m doing that, I’m going to continue to build up my practice. And by the time we get to year three, you’re going to have a fully-trained development director, and I hope I’m going to have a viable business.”

And to his credit, my boss looked at me, and he said, “Good for you. Go for it. That’s fair. We could do that.” And so, you know, long before I ever heard the words succession plan, I had created one for myself and for my organization. So it’s not impossible. You can do it.

Now I’m at the age where I’m starting to think about what am I going to do when I stop working, and what do I want to leave behind in the work that I’ve been doing? So my current succession plan looks something like this. And this is a bit of a plug. I hope you’ll help you honor me with that. I helped to create and I helped to run a six-month program that trains facilitators, consultants, trainers through Marlboro College, which is here in Vermont. And the way it works is there is a three-day intensive at the beginning, and there’s a three-day intensive at the end, and then there’s basically six months in the middle where we have remote coaching and training and webinars and things like that.

And what I’m hoping to do through this program, and we’re in the second cohort now, so we’ve had 38 people come to the program, is I’m basically trying to leave the campsite in better shape than I found it. I want to make sure there’s people out in the world who are good trainers and good facilitators and good consultants who can pick up the slack of the work that I’m currently doing when I’m no longer interested in doing it.

And this has been in my brain for like 10 years, and it’s only launched in the last 2 years, because it’s taken a while for it to gestate and find a home. But I’ve been real intentional about it. And I would offer this up to you as an example of something that you can do in your own life, which is what do I want to leave behind when I’m not working here, or I’m not working at all, or I’m not on this planet anymore. You know, what’s my legacy? You can consciously build that.

So one of my questions to you, guys, is, and this isn’t really a good place to use the chat box, you know, based on what we’re learning today, how do we help each other do this better? What are the mutual support networks or educational tools or whatever that we can be sharing with each other, passing around, that would help us to think better the way I’m trying to teach you the thing today? And so feel free to, you know, fire up the chat box and give me your thoughts on this.

And, Steven, I’m going to pick on you for a minute here. What do you think people need to do this better?

Steven: Well, actually, a couple people asked if this should be part of the strategic plan. Do you think that that should be kind of woven into maybe the overall plan of the organization? It seems like from what I’m hearing from the question . . .

Andy: You can’t see me because I’m not on video, but I’m doing my happy dance. And I actually have a client I’m working with right now, they asked for this, and I thought it was brilliant. They want a strategic plan that also includes a succession plan and also includes a fundraising plan. So we’re putting that all in one package. And, you know, part of that is because the longtime executive director is roughly my age, I guess, I don’t actually know, but is thinking about the next phase. So they are being conscious and vocal about that. So that’s a good answer.

Are there other questions that are coming up that you want to send to me?

Steven: Yeah, a few people have asked, especially during your last maybe three or four slides, is how long should this process take? You mentioned that. I think you said a two year, giving two-years notice. Is that, you know, did you pull that time from out of a hat? Is that what you like to use, kind of one year, two years? What do you think?

Andy: That’s a great question. You know, I don’t want to project my own personal experience onto everybody and say, “I did it this way, therefore you should do it that way,” because that ain’t necessarily true. I just have to say it depends, right? I think for most nonprofits, if you had a longtime leader who said, “I’m giving you guys a year or two to think about my next person,” that seems totally fair to me, because it takes a while, right? So I don’t know that there’s a specific answer to that.

I’m seeing a question here from Anne. Hi, Anne [Butner 00:42:06], how are you?

Steven: Oh, great.

Andy: This is a little one-off. You guys remember, may remember the slide earlier, where I showed you the transitions between stages of organizations. And it said leading board versus following board. And this actually worth spending a minute on. Some organizations begin as a collective. It’s a group of people that come together collectively, and that would be called a leading board, because they are all in leadership together. Some groups form because a charismatic individual or two said, “I want to have this organization. We need to address this problem. Here’s an opportunity.” And then that charismatic person brings some people around them to, you know, help the birth the organization, but it’s about that charismatic individual. And in that case, it’s more of a following board, because they’re following the lead of that leader.

And it’s worth saying that this is the DNA of nonprofits. It’s usually one or the other. And it’s also worth saying that the groups that start as a collective tend to have an easier time growing to maturity and fruition compared to the groups that spring fully formed out of one person’s head. And that isn’t always true, but that’s often true. So, you know, going back to the founding story sometimes can shed some light on what your opportunities are moving forward and how these transitions are going to work for you.

All right. So I got a little more content. We’re doing good on time here. I want you to imagine you are the leader. Some of you, in fact, are. And I’m going to offer you 10 suggestions or thoughts or ideas for managing these transitions appropriately in no particular order. First of all, I want you to hand off some tasks, especially the ones you like to do, not just the grunt work. Now parentheses, you may work in a small organization where there’s nobody to hand any tasks off to, so I’m mindful of that, but still find some people anyway. Maybe there’s some work the board could be doing if your staff . . . you haven’t empowered them yet to do.

Second bullet here, do not be a perfectionist. Thou shalt not be a perfectionist. It’s not always that your way is the best way. And part of building leadership gets to the next bullet, which is encouraging other people to try stuff that’s out of their comfort zone, let them fail, don’t be hypercritical about that. People learn by doing. And I think a great workplace is one where people get to experiment and try stuff. And, you know, failure is just information, right? It’s something you learn from. And then the next time you do it differently.

I’m on a board right now where our chair has been running the meetings for years and needs a break, frankly. And I sat with the chair, and I said, “Would you like it if we started rotating sharing of the meeting, organizing of the agenda, and we pass that around, and every board member got a turn running the meetings?” And the chair said, “That would be awesome.” And part of my thinking is this is leadership development. People should know how to run a meeting. They should know how to put an agenda together. It’s a skill you can learn. So I’m actually trying to model that in a group that I’m on. And I think if you are the alpha person and you run all the meetings, that’s one more way that you’re holding on to power. So see if you can share that a little bit.

Love this. You have two ears. You have one mouth. There’s reason for that. And so I think good leadership is listening. And if you’re one of those people who likes to talk, I would urge you to step back a little and create more space for others to talk and listen as thoroughly and as deeply as you can to what they’re saying.

So leadership doesn’t look like one thing. It shows up differently based on gender or based on age or based on sexual orientation or based on race and social class. I mean, there’s not one flavor of this. And we have to be mindful that it’s going to look different in different organizations. And if you have a new leader who literally looks different from the old leader, then the leadership styles will be different. This isn’t inherently bad. It’s probably good. And so we have to be open to that and really sort of embrace the idea that leadership comes in many flavors, and let’s try some different flavors.

Now this next one is a favorite of mine. I don’t know if I have any Shakespeareans on the call, but there’s a classic thing in a Shakespeare play where you have a king who’s doing something stupid, and then you have the fool. And the fool is the one who tells the truth even at the risk of being beaten, and sometimes is beaten, but the fool is always there to remind the leader when they’re doing silly things or they’re making a martyr of themselves or they’re being an ass.

And so it wouldn’t hurt to have somebody in the office or in your organization or on the board who fills that function, who blows the whistle and say, “Wait a minute here. This is just too much.” And you really want to honor that person, and, you know, not send them to timeout, not fire them, but actually say, “Good for you. Thank you for raising that.”

Term limits. Now this is controversial. I’m a total believer in term limits for board members. I think we absolutely need to have turnover on our boards. You know, the classic board term limit is, for example, three two-year terms, or two three-year terms. That’d be six years total. And then you have to go away for a while. And, you know, maybe even come back later, or maybe you take a different role in the organization. You just volunteer, but you’re not on the board. And I think it’s healthy for groups to have turnover.

And I’m starting to think about term limits for executive directors, just because we all have our own blind spots. And I have to say, I know people who’ve been executive directors for 20 years straight and are incredibly effective, and that is totally possible. But more often than not, I’ve seen the opposite, and people get into ruts, and the organizations join them in that rut. So I’m proposing this as an idea. I’m not totally committed to it myself, but I think it’s worth talking about.

I think you need to think about transition planning, succession planning the way you think about retirement if you’re organized. And it’s you make a plan, and then you put away a certain amount of money every month or every year, and you have a financial planner, you know. And this is, you know, very mainstream culture, so I’ll acknowledge that, but, boy, having a plan is good in that circumstance. And I think it’s the same thing for transition planning. You want to have benchmarks, and you want to have a calendar, and you want to be handing things off or building up leadership within the organization in a way that you can benchmark and track.

Finally, thou shalt have a will. And this would be an interesting exercise. If you are, again, the primary person in the organization, perhaps you’re a founder, long-term leader, you get yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a beer, you know, soda, whatever you like, and sit down at a table and write it up like a will. When I leave the organization, this is what I want to leave behind. This is what I want to see.

And once you got it, you’re comfortable with it, I actually encouraged you to share it with other people, and you could start a conversation about what’s the next phase going to look like. And I think that’s really transparent leadership, is to name, this is my vision, and I’m putting it out there. And oh, by the way, this implies that I’m not going to be here forever.

Now if you are not the leader, this came up earlier here. Like, what happens if you’ve got someone who’s entrenched and you don’t know what to do about moving them along? I don’t have a lot to offer here, because this is hard. But I would say this. First of all, you know, do your homework. And part of the doing your homework is to try and check around. Now you don’t want to gossip grotesquely behind people’s backs, but I think it’s okay if you have a theory or an idea to talk to people quietly about it and say, you know, “Are you seeing this? Are you noticing that?” And start to see if there are, as a peer group, who feels the same way that you do.

You want to be strategic. And what I mean by this is the way you want to frame this, this is really the last bullet, is you want to focus on why this is good for the long-term health of the organization as opposed to why this leader is a problem and we need to get rid of this person. It’s always about the long-term health and viability of the organization. It’s never about a personality.

And frankly, I don’t think it’s usually about a leadership style, but it’s more of the conversation. Okay, how long do we think we’re going to be in business? Well, we need to be in business for another 100 years. Okay, what are we doing now to create the leadership that’s going to carry on a generation or a generation after that? How are you doing that? Like, what’s our plan for that? And I don’t know that that’s entirely safe, but I think it’s a safer conversation than going after somebody individually or personally.

I’m thinking that most of what I’ve got here. There’s some resources. You all get the slide. You have the slide deck. So for those of you who want to do further reading, here are some things that I found that I think might be helpful to you. So feel free to do whatever homework would be appropriate. I’ll do a little shout out. I’m doing a Vermont day today. I do a lot of shout out to Common Good Vermont, which is our, essentially, our local statewide nonprofit network and support system. And they have a pretty good website. It’s the last bullet. And there’s some nice succession planning stuff there.

So anything else that you want to bring up? And, Steven, again, if you don’t mind filtering and feeding stuff back to me, I’d be grateful, because there’s a lot here.

Steven: Yeah, there’s a lot. And I should say, we probably won’t get to all of them, but thank you to everyone who has asked questions. I haven’t seen a bad question in here, so my challenge is to pick out perhaps the most interesting, not that there are uninteresting ones. But here is one I thought was pretty interesting that maybe we haven’t covered yet. I’m going to leave the name off just in case we need to protect some identities, but sounds like, Andy, this is coming from a current ED, founder who is thinking about stepping down soon. They’re wondering how do they talk to their board for the first time about that desire without maybe freaking them out. She thinks that maybe they’ll be surprised to learn that they might want to be stepping down soon. From the ED who wants to step down, wants to put a succession plan in place, ideas for approaching the board and letting them know for the first time?

Andy: Okay, so my initial thought is the longer the timeframe, the lower the stress. And if you’re giving them three months’ notice as opposed to 6 months or 12 months or 24 months or whatever it is, the stress is inversely proportional to the amount of time. So think about your time frame first. The second thing I would do is I would have you look around internally, you know, talking to yourself here and saying, “Is there or are there people within the organization that you think could take this place over and do a good job?” And, you know, maybe someone’s not there yet, but their groomable and you see some potential. So that’s the second mental thing, is this something where I’ve got people internally that could do this work well?

The third thing I would do is I would think about a couple of immediate steps that you can present to them. I wouldn’t necessarily dump an entire plan on them and say, “Here, approve this,” because I’d want the board to be part of creating that plan, but I think about the next step or two. Like, maybe there’s some research in terms of let’s collect some transition plans from other organizations, or let’s invite three board members from three different organizations who went through leadership transition recently to come to our board and let’s do a little panel and do a Q&A and say, “How did you do this? And what did you learn? And what was surprising? And what was challenging? And how did you solve that? And what surprised you?” And so I’d want to learn from peers.

And I think if you show up with a timeline, and maybe some thoughts on who the next leader might be, and specifically some next steps that the board could take to implement the plan, then I think the stress level goes down.

Next question.

Steven: So come to them with a little bit of a plan. That makes sense.

Andy: I don’t want a fully-baked to plan, because I want them to help participate in that planning process, but I would put down the first two or three bread crumbs for them to lead them down the path.

Steven: Cool. Here’s one from Joe. What are the pros and cons of a departing founder working alongside their successor with perhaps not being paid? Have you seen . . . And I guess it could be either. Maybe it’s the successor doing the shadowing while the ED is still there. Maybe the ED is helping the successor once the successor is in place. Compensation in both cases. What have you seen? What works? What doesn’t work?

Andy: Well, pros and cons. Let’s deal with the cons first. The biggest con is that if someone is used to being the boss and they are effectively demoted into a lower-ranking position, whoever the new boss is could easily be second-guessed, undermined, micromanaged. It’s pretty hard for people who have control and power to give it up. That is not easy, you know.

And the parasitical thing here is I’ve been working for myself for 25 years. And, you know, I don’t have a board. I don’t have a boss. I’m my own boss. At this point in my life, I would be a terrible employee. I would not take direction well. So, you know, I know that about myself, and I’m not likely to go look for a day job anytime soon, but I think that’s the biggest risk, is that that person . . . I mean, a variation on that is the departing executive director continues to hoard relationships and not share them transparently and proactively with a new executive director. So those are the cons. And I’ll give you one more, which is it’s also possible that the board will continue to defer to the old leader rather than the new one.

The pro is you get the experience, you have more time to do the transition, there may be some skill set where the former executive director who’s sticking around, really wants to do and can do well and is grateful to not be the leader and have the heartache and the headache that comes with being the leader and would step into a more modest role and enjoy it a lot and would bring a lot to the organization.

So where I land on this is I think it’s about personality. You know, if you have a departing leader who is reasonably modest and reasonably humble and listens well and doesn’t take up a lot of space, then that person could be a real asset. And if you have someone who is, you know, throws their weight around a little more, it’s going to be harder to keep them around. So I guess that’s my best answer.

Shall we do another one?

Steven: Yeah. Why don’t we do one more since we’re coming up on the hour? I’ve been trying saving this [inaudible 00:57:48] one.

Andy: Yeah. And while we’re doing that, I’m going to cue up . . . I’ll cue up this next slide here. I guess I’ll just give you the homework, which is you need to be thinking about how you’re going to implement what we’ve talked about today. And while you’re thinking about that, give me one more question.

Steven: I love this one. I’ve been saving it. Fear over losing a donor or many donors because a founder, who is very attached to maybe those donors or the mission or the organization itself, they’re sort of intertwined, how do you deal with that?

Andy: Yeah. So, you know, my first response to this is, boy . . . And I think [inaudible 00:58:26] whoever brought it up, I know exactly what you’re saying. One of the points I made earlier is that there’s a cost to transition planning, and one of the costs might be the loss of a few donors who are more loyal to the individual who is leaving than they are loyal to the organization as a whole. And if you have a long time ED who’s, you know, embedded in many ways, both good and bad, that’s a total risk. And there’s two or three things you can do.

Number one is you are looking to have a conscious handoff of that relationship. And, you know, in the ideal world, the departing CEO, executive director, board, chair, whoever it is, goes to lunch or sits down for coffee with these donors one-on-one and brings along the heir apparent and says, “Martha, I’m introducing you to Anita, who’s going to be taking over my position. And Anita is awesome. And I’m so excited. And I hope that you will show the same generosity and respect to Anita that you showed to me.” And so I want this, like, ritual hand off. That would be optimal. That isn’t always going to happen. And lacking that, you will lose some donors, and frankly, you have to budget for that. You have to plan for that.

All right. I want to show you a couple of resources. This is my latest book, and it’s pretty relevant to this subject, actually. “What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid.” There might be a chapter in there on long-term planning and succession planning. So please look for the book of that’s of interest to you.

And then here are my websites. I do this thing called Train Your Board. “Train Your Board” is a book. Train Your Board is, what is it now, it’s everything. It’s a website. It’s a blog. It’s an e-news. It’s a video training series. Anyway, one of the things that I get today as a result of doing this is I get a list of everyone who has registered. And so you will get an invitation for me saying, “Welcome to Train Your Board.” And I’m pretty modest. I’m like sending out emails maybe twice a month, three times a month. Sometimes it’s things like here’s a free webinar. So I’m going to add you to my list, and you will hear from me.

If you get too much email, if it’s not useful to you and you want to unsubscribe, I’m totally fine with that. I never track it. But I would like to invite you in. And then if you choose to step out, that’s fine. But please know that you will hear from me. And part of my job is to keep you educated about this stuff, if you want to be, so I’m excited to have you be part of the family.

And I think that’s my work. Do you have announcements, Steven?

Steven: I do. My only announcement is to say thank you. We owe you a huge debt of gratitude for taking an hour out of your day and more to prep for this, making it happen. So I just want to say thank you to you, Andy, for sharing your knowledge and your experience, your years of wisdom. Obviously, you’ve been doing this a long time. You’ve seen it all. So I told you all, it’s going to be good. Hopefully, you all enjoyed it. I sure did. I learned a lot.

So thank you. Thank you for being here. Please buy Andy’s book. I mean, honestly, it’s obviously, he’s a wealth of knowledge here. You’re going to get an email from him. I would definitely reach out, especially if you are near him geographically. Although, you know, with these webinars, you can talk to anyone from across the country. Reach out to Andy.

Andy: And, you know, let me jump in for a second. I’m going to go backwards here, because I have slide control. If there are questions that I didn’t get to answer today that you really want answered, there are the websites. You can pull my email address off of there, and you can just send me an email, you can call me up, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. So don’t feel like you, if you’ve missed out today, this is your only chance. I’ll try and serve you in the future if I can.

Steven: I love it. Very kind offer. Take advantage of it. Told you he’s a good guy, too. He’s awesome. And we’ve got some excellent webinars coming up. We have a special Wednesday webinar. So if Thursdays are bad for you, I don’t know why would it be, because it’s Thursday now and you’re listening, but Wednesday, Wednesday at 1:00, we’re going to talk about digital fundraising but from a little bit of a different lens. We’re going to take a pretty different approach to this of maybe getting your house in order before you jump into the digital fundraising world.

It’s going to be a fun one. Danielle Johnson Vermenton is going to join us, my new friend, she’s on Twitter, you definitely want to follow her if you’re interested in that. So if you’ve got some digital fundraising needs or maybe you’re just interested in that channel, haven’t really approached it before, join us. Same place, almost same time and date, Wednesday at 1 p.m., it’ll be recorded for sure. So even if you register, you’ll get that recording.

Speaking of recordings, I’m going to get that to all of you today. So look for an email from me this afternoon. I will get you the slides and the recording just in case you didn’t already get the slides. And hopefully, we’ll see you again next week. So we’ll call it a day there. Thanks again to all of you, especially Andy, and have a good rest of your Thursday. Stay warm. Have a good weekend. And we’ll see you again soon. Bye now.

Andy: Bye-bye.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.