A Change is Gonna Come: Supporting Our Partners through Leadership Transitions

Like many of you, when lockdowns came, we felt like we were in the midst of the crisis of our generation. No one could have anticipated that the months following would bring a cascade of additional crises, that together have the potential to fundamentally change this country for generations. We have all watched grantees pivot and respond to each emerging crisis while continuing the work core to their missions. They have shifted from allies to advocates for critical services, organizers to social workers helping members access support for basic needs or counseling through illness, layoffs, and sometimes death. They are overworked and stressed and confronting new realities as young people and their families begin to make decisions about where and how to attend school in the coming year. We are inspired by their resilience and their grit and are committed to meeting this moment with them, to finding ways to be better partners and allies in this work.

In philanthropy, we have celebrated as our grantees have adapted, supported them moving operations online and shifting their work to meet the emerging realities of the moment. Many of us have quickly stepped up to shift our grantmaking in focus and practice. We’ve embraced programmatic and strategic change and have tried to be flexible and supportive—changing long-time philanthropic practices to ease the burden on our grantees.

To Tell the Truth

As funders, we’ve proven that we can adapt our behaviors in the face of new and growing needs. So why is it that when we hear a leader is leaving an organization with whom we are partnering, we freeze? One moment we celebrate the mission and work of our grantee partners and the very next we question whether we can continue supporting the very same organization because someone new will be leading it. We talk endlessly about burnout and supporting leadership but that support pauses when talk moves to transition. Our support moves from organizational to individual and concern builds around whether the organization will successfully make it through the transitions. So often the philanthropic response is to hold funding, to ‘wait and see’ who the organization brings in next. While we wish for success, we create conditions for failure by holding back funding at exactly the time our partners need us to double down. The question we must ask ourselves as we enter a period of increased leadership transition in the nonprofit sector is what are we waiting for? How we answer will play a significant role in the ability of our nonprofit partners to successfully navigate these transitions.

As funders, we ask our grantee partners for transparency. We want them to share challenges and partner with us on finding solutions. But when our grantee partners are transparent about leadership transitions, many of us pay back this trust by withholding grants until we see how the organization manages its transition. Other times, when our grantees don’t give us enough notice about transitions, we wonder why…and withhold grants until we see who they hire. There is no right way for grantees to talk with us about leadership transitions. And that is our problem, not theirs. As Vu Le wrote on his NonprofitAF blog, our wait and see approach is killing our nonprofit partners. It is time for us to see transitions for what they are: a natural part of an organization’s life cycle and moments of opportunity. Once we move past the fear that freezes us, funders can truly partner with our grantees through organizational change.

The Time of Change

One the of biggest challenges nonprofits face is that we often think about leadership transitions as being from the moment a leader decides to leave until a new leader is brought in. Philanthropic support tends to focus only on this short window of engagement. In fact, there are three stages of executive leadership transition:

  • Before is the stage of exploring and planning for a future change in executive leadership. It includes organization and leadership strengthening for eventual transition readiness and sustainability. The planning in this stage is often called succession or sustainability planning.
  • During is the stage when the transition date is close enough that the organization needs to begin to communicate about the transition to stakeholders and manage a recruitment and hiring process.
  • After is the stage when the organization is onboarding new leadership and supporting a strong leadership launch both internally and externally.

Notably, leaders of color face additional roadblocks throughout the transition process. The Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead Revisited talks at length about the challenges leaders of color face in philanthropy. Our failure to adequately address the issues surfaced there exacerbate the challenges young leaders of color face when taking on leadership roles. If philanthropies focus primarily or exclusively on the during phase of a transition, these new leaders are not afforded the resources and support needed to ensure successful transitions.

What’s Next

The board and staff of the Cricket Island Foundation decided that we would dedicate resources to leadership transitions, with a particular focus on transitions where the goal is to bring in leaders of color from impacted communities. We convened a working group of new and recently departed leaders and asked them to help us think about how to better support nonprofit leadership transitions. The goals we collectively defined were:

  1. For organizations to get through transition in a stable and healthy way.
  2. For transitions to be understood as holding positive value for nonprofits, as opportunities to foster a succession of emerging leadership and intentionally develop organizational vision, strategy, and capacity.
  3. To formalize an executive transition capacity-building program based in current best practice, responsive to the trends and needs of nonprofit leadership.
  4. To signal to philanthropy the importance of embracing organizations going through transitions (rather than pausing or withdrawing support) and educate funders on best practices in relation to their grantees. This will make it possible for organizations to approach core funders early on as partners in transition planning. Having reliable funder partners will also support the success of newly hired Eds and Co-Directors.

The Working Group is taking the lead on the design of a program that will serve nonprofit partners through a combination of general operating support grants, coaching for new leaders and targeted small grants to support the individual leadership development needs of new leaders. The Cricket Island Foundation staff is working in partnership with other interested funders as part of the the Philanthropy New York Leadership Transitions Funders Group.

However, we realize that, like all issues we all support hoping for change, we cannot work in a void. Philanthropy must come together to change the conversation around executive transition, to see it as an opportunity for growth and change and an opportunity to develop the next generation of social change leaders. There cannot be true partnership between us and our grantees unless we commit to listening and not reacting with fear when we hear that an organization is thinking about leadership transition. We need to embrace succession planning as a core tenet of organizational development. While we do not think this will be an easy task, we are committed to normalizing leadership transitions as a part of organizational sustainability. We must do better if we are to ensure young leaders have a voice in our future and their organizations thrive as they nurture the next generation of leadership.

Looking Inward

As we talked about generational transition in the nonprofit sector, our Board also began to talk about what it might look like for a younger generation member of our Board to assume leadership. Founded in 2000, the Cricket Island Foundation has been courageously led by the same second generation board chair since our founding. As a family board representing three generations, by 2020 third generation members represented a significant percentage of members. As we’ve talked about making space for younger leadership with our grantees, we began to talk internally about how we might make space for the third generation’s voices at our Board table. We’ve learned a great deal from watching our grantees struggle with transition, with giving space to younger voices, and one of the biggest things we’ve learned is the value of longer transitions, of incoming and outgoing leaders having an opportunity to work and learn together. In November 2019, our Board elected our first new chair since our founding and our first third generation leader. The conversations were challenging but—led by a governance committee that developed a process that both gave space to every Board member to engage and ensured confidentiality—they emerged more connected and engaged. Like our grantee partners, the process provided an opportunity for growth.

The incoming and outgoing chairs will share leadership of the Foundation in the coming year, to ensure organizational history is passed down and core values are maintained. But they are also open to seeing where the next generation takes us, what new initiatives and new values we might embrace. As the world around us changes at a rapid pace, we must all realize that new leadership is sometimes needed to meet the moment.


The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

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