Is It Always Better to Promote From Within?

by Joan Garry

Internal promotions bring loyalty, understanding, industry knowledge and passion. Think Derek Jeter. Time to think about your farm team.

David Ortiz. Buster Posey. Albert Pujols. Derek Jeter.


Baseball General Managers have three basic ways to improve their teams. They can sign free agents. They can make trades. Or they can build their teams with homegrown players — players they draft and cultivate through the minor leagues.

One thing has shown to be consistently true. The superstars on the best teams — the teams that win the World Series each year — are either homegrown or come to their championship teams early in their careers, before they become stars. Over time, they grow and lead their teams to victory.

The four players above? Those were the leaders of the last four World Series champions. Three of them came up through their team’s minor league systems. The fourth (Ortiz) was a fledgling prospect when he signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent in 2003.

It’s extremely rare for a superstar free agent to take a good team and make it a champion.

Does the same apply to nonprofits? Is it best to promote from within? Or, when it comes to nonprofits, can a superstar outsider be a better bet?


A few weeks ago, Eric Goldstein was appointed CEO of the UJA Federation of New York.

As I noted in my open letter to Mr Goldstein, he looks by all measures to be passionate about Jewish causes, has engaged in many organizations, and has been a member of the board of the organization he will now lead (boards are often feeders for staff leadership.)

Still, questioned why no one from within the UJA family was deemed qualified for the position. And I agree. It is a big concern that the large UJA family could not surface a capable successor. Or that an internal capable successor was passed over.

When the news is reported is as “tsunami,” you know there is concern. Among those concerns:

“For decades younger professionals have moved to other communities all the while being groomed for more senior roles. Taken together with recent choices at other federations to hire ‘outside’ CEO’s, many are concerned about their own career trajectories.”

I hope Goldstein is an MVP but, if we follow the baseball model, maybe there are “players” wallowing in the minors with a coach who doesn’t get that his job is to build that player into the next Jeter. I believe that a home grown ED has a level of investment, loyalty, knowledge, and sector experience that trumps the skills of a superstar free agent almost any day.

But you need to build a strong farm team (pipeline) and the current Executive Director has to understand her/his role as a coach.

This is an issue that nonprofits do not take seriously enough. To ensure stability and sustainability in an organization, you must invest time, energy, and money in your leadership pipeline.


1. Make blue chip hires with just the right dose of ambition. If you have a mediocre pool, wait! There is way too much at stake in making a mediocre hire. You need blue chip hires in the leadership pipeline. And during the interview process, make sure this person has leadership aspirations. You can’t shove someone in that pipeline against their wishes.

2. Fundraising and Donor Cultivation. Don’t leave your pipeline candidates back in the office. Frankly, they can be huge assets with big donors and prospects. They should be able to speak with passion, eloquence, and a level of detail about the work itself that exceeds your own. These folks may balk but remind them that donors really want to hear from the folks who are in the trenches. It builds a solid relationship. And besides, key stakeholders need to be impressed with the senior staff and not just the E.D. Lastly, a pipeline candidate needs to be part of the strategy and execution of a major donor ask.

3. Public Speaking. Start small and work up. Offer them pitch speech templates that make it easier and less onerous. In prepping, ask them to tell you the most powerful recent story about the work. Then critique in terms of length and impact. Have them tell that story at the gathering.

4. Board Visibility. I’m currently working with an organization in which a current staffer will indeed take over next year. Up to this point, her access to the board has been limited. This must change. The board must see this new person as capable, as a person with a vision, as their new leader. Without substantive exposure to the board, the board will naturally second guess the fait accompli nature of the “decision.”

5. Invest YOUR time in them. Think about the payoff. A transition from within to a capable and qualified candidate that your board and key stakeholders have a relationship with and respect and admire for their dedication to your organization vs. “an outsider.” Which makes for a more seamless transition? Which option is more likely to ensure stability and sustainability?

Nonprofit CEOs miss the boat on this part of their job all the time. One of their key responsibilities is to replace themselves. Nonprofit CEOs need to put this way higher on their priority list.

I know this. I’ve been there. I waited too long to groom. And this delay had real ramifications on an organization I cared deeply about. I waited too long and an outsider (or two or three) were hired and the organization has had a very bumpy ride (much to my sadness and dismay.)

So I think it makes sense once a year to spend a little time in the executive session of a board meeting on the “what-if-I’m-hit-by-a-bus” scenario. Ask board members for insights about your staff and agree that you will spend time building staff capacity and getting some of your stars into that pipeline.

The Board may end up making an outside hire anyway, but that will not be your decision. You can only control what you can control. And the organization you work so hard for demands a thoughtful, strategic and comprehensive succession plan.

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2 thoughts on “Is It Always Better to Promote From Within?”

  1. Joan, I just wanted to add a thought as it relates to the dollar cost of pipeline investments. It would be helpful if funders and donors were to signal that they are OK with what may additions to overhead. Because, while some pipeline investments do not have a dollar cost (e.g., conversations at board meetings), others do cost money (e.g., planning retreats, sending talent on trips to conferences to raise their profile and to teach them to fly solo, paid coaching/training for specific skills, etc.) and this may affect overhead. And you know how sensitive we all are to THAT.
    Going a little deeper, pipeline management also means hiring staff under the leadership prospects so they can replicate themselves WITHIN the org and not get stuck being unneccesarily indispensible below their potential. As I travel through the NP sector, I sometimes see “Formula 1” talent do “roller rink” tasks because they lack resources, human or IT or other — which does not position them as leaders. (It helps if your internal promotions have had wins… so… position them for wins.)
    Setting aside the Yankee love (GO DODGERS!), this is a great post. Thanks.

  2. Jens. First off, we diehard Yankee fans have a special place in the Dodgers with Don Mattingly at the helm (yet ANOTHER example of homegrown talent in the organizational pipeline). And yes I agree with all your points. Hard to get $ for pro development and it’s one of the first expenses that gets cut when you are trying to get revenue to equal expenses. Maybe ED’s give up too quickly on it and don’t see it as important enough either…..

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