Transition Plan Template for Executive Directors

transition plan template

When it’s time to go, you need a transition plan template. Image by Bernal Saborio.

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.

NEXT STEPS:

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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Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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