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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Succeeding at Succession 

July 18, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

We award grants to organizations, but it’s people who have the ideas and who do the work. So when the people we’ve come to depend on retire or move to new opportunities, we can’t help but wonder what the change will bring. That is never truer than when the chief executive departs, and recruiting for his or her successor begins.

We’ve seen that a lot recently. Among the organizations in our portfolio that have gone through leadership searches in the past year are the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, the Population Council, the Guttmacher Institute, and the Population Reference Bureau. I’m sure 2015 will bring more—every year does.

Leadership transitions are often filled with stress and uncertainty, but they can also afford opportunities to strengthen the relationship between a nonprofit organization and its funders. Here’s how:

Have an answer when we ask about a succession plan. A standard question we ask, particularly when working with a nonprofit organization that is led by its founder, is whether there’s a succession plan. What’s going to happen when the person with the initial vision moves on? Who’s responsible for recruiting a new leader and how will it happen? Who will keep the organization running in the interim? The more forethought the board has put into this, the more likely it is that the disruption inherent in such transitions will be minimal.

Make sure there are no surprises. Absent extenuating circumstances, we expect to be informed about the departure of a chief executive very soon after staff and before the public. Ditto for information about a successful recruitment. This is not the kind of news funders should hear second-hand.

Give us a chance to weigh in. Funders have a lot to contribute when a search gets underway. We don’t just know the organization itself, but we see how it fits into the broader ecosystem of similar organizations. On good days, we also might have some smart things to say about where the field is going, or could go. This is valuable for developing a position description. Even better, with a field-wide view, we know some of the rising stars who might be ready to stretch into a leadership role.

Let us see how the leadership team is stepping up. Many of the best organizations depend on a leadership team, not just a single person, to set and maintain a strategic direction. It’s often during times of leadership transition that we get a picture of how well the folks who are in charge of operations, finance, and other key functions work, individually and as a team.

Offer mutual commitment. Both parties to the funder-grantee relationship can, if they choose, reduce the uncertainty by making commitments that transcend a specific hiring decision. The nonprofit’s board, for example, can articulate the strategic questions they want any incoming leader to think through. This gives us confidence that the board is taking its role seriously, an indicator of a healthy institution. For our part, we are sometimes able to arrange the timing of grant decisions and the duration of funding so that a new chief executive has some time to settle in before facing a new round of fundraising. (The earlier we know about pending transitions, the easier it is for us to do this.) Occasionally, we can also commit new, just-in-time money for the leadership search itself, or for a strategic planning process that might prove valuable to an organization’s new head.

Like all funders, we have a big stake in the health, productivity, and success of the organizations we’re able to support—regardless of who is at the helm. A leadership transition can be a time for us to gain even more confidence that we’ve placed a smart bet.