Perhaps you want to leave your job?
You’re not alone. Research galore tells us we’re living through a near mass exodus of boomers from nonprofit Executive Director positions.
Just last week, a reader emailed me for advice on leaving. She’s in her 60s and been the ED for decades. She’s tired of the travel and intensity of the role. She wrote that she’s not exactly burned out and still believes deeply in the mission. But she just knows it’s time.
Like most of those who reach out to me about this, she wants to do it the right way. She LOVES her organization and is desperate not to do any harm on the way out.
My reader told me she has searched everywhere online for a transition plan template… something to help her figure out things like:
- How to discuss leaving with the board and what to expect as a response
- How to manage community relations
- How to work with the staff to best handle the transition
And on and on…
I pointed her to this excellent and thoughtful piece written by Frances Kuenreuther and her colleagues called “The Leadership in Leaving.” It’s very helpful. But I wished I could tell her more about the how. It’s not really a transition plan template per se.
So here is my 8-step transition plan template for how to depart from your nonprofit organization the right way.
MY 8 STEP TRANSITION PLAN TEMPLATE
STEP 1: GET YOUR POSITIONING RIGHT
Every single action and piece of communication should be focused on ensuring the best answer to this singular question:
How does this organization come across so well that this job will be appealing to the absolute cream of the crop?
This is one of the highest profile opportunities you have to sell your organization and this job.
Sure, your organization wants to celebrate you and your accomplishments. But focus on the accomplishments in such way that they accrue benefits to the organization as much as they do to the exiting leader.
STEP 2: DRAFT YOUR EXIT ANNOUNCEMENT
This will be your core messaging document. You will use pieces of it everywhere. Be authentic. Why are you stepping down?
Most importantly, you want to talk about the amazing organization, the skilled and dedicated staff, and the smart and strategic board that you have had the privilege to lead.
Here’s a little secret. Find external validation for some of the messages about the organization. Of course YOU will say great things. But what about a leader in your sector (and not an obvious choice)? If your nonprofit advocates for kids to get a better education, how about a senior state or federal government official who can validate the importance of the work of your organization and your leadership?
One more thing. You will give some notice, hopefully 6 months if you can. Make sure your announcement ends with, “Now I need to get back to work.”
STEP 3: DRAFT A STATEMENT FROM YOUR BOARD
Do the thinking for them. Unless you have a PR exec on your board, you’ll have to lead this horse to water. And even a PR person will want to sell YOU. That’s not what we are looking for.
Draft a quote from the board chair. Or better still, draft a quote from the chair of the search committee that hired you. That committee can speak to the growth of the organization (under your leadership).
These materials need to be approved and finalized before the verbal communications begin. So you may need to broaden the circle beyond the board chair to the Executive Committee to get buy in on the two core pieces of written material – the email blast to your constituents and the press release.
STEP 4: DECIDE WHO NEEDS TO HEAR WHAT FROM WHOM AND WHEN
You are going to think I’m nuts, but this 4th step in the transition plan template is critical. Please write down this list and put it in priority order months ahead. The closer you get to telling people that you’re leaving, the more anxious you will be. Anxiety will lead to forgetting. There will be plenty of emotions around your departure. You want to avoid the anger that may come with being forgotten.
Start with your internal folks.
Board first. In your timetable, carve out a ½ day and stay home. I made sure it was late in the afternoon so I had the phone in one hand and a cocktail in the other. Actually, I must have had three hands then. I also had my talking points.
One by one, I called each board member personally. I did not leave the news on a voice mail. I was clear that the staff did not yet know (except my assistant) and that their confidentiality was expected.
Search Committee. I had stayed in touch with them and wanted them to hear the news from me. Most importantly, I wanted to thank them. Their decision to hire me transformed me in ways that still choke me up. I wanted them to know that.
In both of these cases, I was clear about the timetable of who would be told and when.
Senior Staff. If someone reports directly to you, they need to be told directly by you.
Staff. As soon as the full board and senior staff members are told, it’s time for a staff meeting. Use your talking points. You can use the letter “I” some of the time (i.e. “I am so proud of all of you!”) but the announcement is really about them, the organization, and all the work you plan to get done before you leave.
Beg for confidentiality and explain why it would be far from ideal if your biggest donor didn’t hear the news directly from you.
Stakeholder Calls. As you build the timetable, allocate another ½ day in your office uninterrupted. This list should include the most important people in your database – the top donors, the most high maintenance donors, the most influential donors (these three groups will have overlap but will not be identical).
Then you move to your professional colleagues/friends and key people to your organization – sector experts etc. You will have to make a judgment call here about leaving messages. This may be necessary since the next thing out the door will be an email blast to your entire list.
STEP 5: BUILD A TIMETABLE
For your transition plan, you will need to bring out your inner OCD. You won’t be timing out what will happen each week; in some cases it will be what will happen each hour.
Bring one person in on this with you. It can be your communications person or assistant (if you have one), a trusted volunteer, the board chair. Think it through carefully.
And of course, it will need to tie in with Step 4.
STEP 6: ENCOURAGE THE BOARD TO GET SOME HELP
I’m not talking headhunter help. Many orgs find great leaders without one. I’m talking about transition plan consultants or a former ED or board chair who cares about the sector who can provide pro bono support.
Leadership transition is the single most turbulent time in an organization. You must have a thoughtful transition plan. Boards can be quite naïve about this and really underestimate the toll it takes on donors, staff, and the broader community.
Boards can sometimes think of this as a boss resigning rather than a leader. Losing a boss is certainly a challenge but losing a leader is an emotional loss and can cause all kinds of things to go bump in the night.
There are lots of good resources out there – sometimes a funder will underwrite a transition consultant. Or talk to my friends at www.compasspoint.com.
STEP 7: FUNDRAISE FOR THE NEW LEADER, NOT THE ONE LEAVING
Warning: Don’t show this post to your head of development. S/he is already preparing the world tour as if you are Cher retiring for the 12th time.
NO! Don’t allow it. It sends the wrong message. And besides the money won’t stick.
Say it with me now. No fundraising opportunity tied to the departure of your E.D.
I have been to dozens of ‘farewell fundraisers.’ I have seen those farewell tours. When I left GLAAD, there was not a single one. Did the organization take advantage of our annual galas to honor my contributions? Of course (we weren’t stupid).
But during my six months, I met with every big donor to remind them of their institutional commitment. In some cases I asked for multi-year commitments so that the new leader had more run room for cultivation and stewardship.
STEP 8: WHEN YOU SAY YOU ARE GOING TO GO, GO!
The search has taken too long. The interim plan isn’t ideal.
Should you extend your stay? No! Not in any formal capacity.
The best leaders let new leaders lead.
I’m guessing this post has raised a lot of questions for board and staff alike. What else would you add to a transition plan template? Post them in the comments below and I promise to try to get to them in a timely manner.
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15 thoughts on “Transition Plan Template for Executive Directors”
This is beyond excellent, Joan! Thank you for a thoughtful formula for leaving gracefully, selflessly and with the organization’s future secure for the next leader. One thing you didn’t spend much time on is the efficacy of an interim ED. I’m part of a movement in Arizona to make interims the norm in transition situations. What are your thoughts?
Pauline. Thank you and I am so glad you found it helpful. There seems to be a growing sense that interims are valuable. I believe it depends on how the responsibilities are structured. It can be helpful to have an objective third party running the shop and offering recommendation / insights to the new person. The downside (and it is not inconsequential) is fundraising. People want to know who the leader is and where the leader is going to take the organization. Very hard to raise money without a full time leader in place. Feeling like this could be a blog post 🙂 !
Perfect – going into my ever growing file of “Wisdom from Joan Garry”. I am planning a 6 week leave of absence (for medical reasons) in May/June – I’ve never taken a vacation longer than a week in the 15 years I’ve been here so figuring out how to manage it is a bit mind-boggling. Any suggestions?
I would love to hear more, Joan. Fundraising is my background, and I don’t see the problem, as long as donors have been brought into the circle and understand the process
First off, you are NOT going on a vacation. Since when do “medical reasons” = vacation. That is SUCH an ED thing to say 🙂 Best advice I would offer: Sit with each person on your team (do you have a team?) and set six week goals. What needs to get done while you are gone? Talk about those things and what support your folks will need to achieve them. Who might be available to help. Don’t say YOU. and if you can’t help yourself, consider creating boundaries and sticking to them. How about Skype office hours three times a week? Oh, and if your medical reasons include any kind of pain meds, be sure to take them just before the office hours. You won’t care quite as much if there is something bad happening and you will be way more entertaining. Lastly, I love the idea that someone in the universe might actually even THINK about having a file with that label. Be well!
Pauline, Bringing donors into the process is really important and is a step often skipped. That will certainly help. But there are donors who see an “interim” as implying a sort of organizational “limbo” in which there is not forward motion. Donors like forward motion and are not big fans of treading water.
Thanks for the good laugh (and good advice.) I know that medical leave is not the same as a vacation – I just meant I’ve never been away from the office for that long. I’m thinking that for the first 2-3 weeks post-surgery I’ll be completely unavailable but after that I like the idea of a Skype or phone call a couple times a week (but not checking email constantly as I would probably do if I didn’t set boundaries.) My board chair is already freaking out so I want to have everything in writing so she calms down a bit!
Joan, This was a most helpful article. In a bit of an unusual move, I have given our board 18 months notice of my plan to retire. A part of the reason for that is to encourage them to get the outside help you mention in your article. We are a mid-size, non-profit hospice and I am suggesting that the board get help making sure that they are satisfied with the strategic plan we will soon be adopting and then identifying the leadership qualities and skills in a new ED that would best move the strategic plan forward. I am helping them reach out to a couple of firms that specialize in hospice strategic planning (not head hunting). I have done much of what you recommend, but there are a few ideas here that we will use going forward. Thank you for this meaningful article.
Bill. 18 months is indeed an unusually long notice period. It sounds like you will use it very well. Let’s hope the board does. I have a friend who gave 9 months notice and the board has frittered away 4 of those months before even approving a job description for the headhunter……..Thank you so much for your kind words and for your service to what is clearly a vital organization.
Joan, thank you so much for this article! I took the ED position of a very small non-profit, following an ED who provided strong leadership to the organization for more than a decade. The board made a strategic decision not to have any overlap in which we were both employed with the organization. While I appreciated the decision to allow me space to lead us into a new chapter, I also would have benefited from some overlap, and believe my future successor (likely another outside hire) would as well. While I’m not ready to go yet, I’d like to be sure I have a concrete recommendation for the board when the time comes so that I can best support the new ED and minimize the impact on our overall mission. What advice can you offer about how to effectively transition an organization between EDs? Is overlap of the new and former ED important? How can it be structured so that I can support the new ED while still giving him/her the space he/she needs to lead the organization, and without creating confusion among the staff/donors/board/other stakeholders? Or is a clear separation without overlap best?
I plan to retire in a couple of years. What our board has decided to do is to have an assistant ED trained in some of the main duties and introduced to the donors frequently. Then when the full retirement comes along, this person will be able to apply for this position or at least be prepared in the interim. If she is not selected, she knows that she may have to go find another position but is prepared to go this route as she really wants the hands on training from me while she is taking her education online. Your thoughts on this?
This was gold for me, as I am leaving an ED post. Question for any and all: even though you did everything properly (handed your resignation with care, prowess, and keeping the organization’s best interests, etc.), did you experience any board members “turn” on you? My last two months have been less than desirable and although I am so excited about the next step in my career, I am leaving on a sad/sour note.
Maria. I didn’t but I do hear these stories. Remember, a transition puts a lot of pressure on board members and they have to take it out on SOMEONE. If the board chair has not “turned” on you, why not talk to her/him and see s/he can hep with an attitude adjustment.
I understand giving six months’ notice when retiring, but I am considering leaving for a new job and if I get it, two months is about the max I can offer. Some of my professional mentors even think THAT’s too long. Thoughts?
Do you have any communication plan templates to point me to? I would like to get one in place in case of a leadership transition for ANY reason: be it firing, stepping down, retiring, etc. so that the organization and the E.D. are protected from small town gossip and conjecture. I would like to create positive messaging and a plan that paints a rosy picture of transition so that both the organization and the E.D. can move on without unnecessary issues or problems.