Going Against Convention

| by Leslie Starsoneck

Despite the nonprofit sector’s complexity and diversity, there are a fair number of common practices or conventional wisdom.  One practice is when a founding director announces their intention to retire or otherwise leave the organization, it is best to make a clean break – thorough and swift.   

A recent study in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, questions this default position and explains why. 

Here are two common concerns that promote the “clean break” position. 

  • The founder will unduly influence and interfere with the search for a new leader.  This can take the form of only entertaining candidates very similar to themselves including internal candidates they have groomed.  Or, they may object to the search process itself and the necessity to assess the organization that might be ready for a new direction or leadership style. 
  • The founder will be unable to function in any role other than founding director.  They will be unable to let go of previous authority.  They will have difficulty trusting anyone else with the “reins” including the board, especially if they’ve been allowed to function largely outside of board participation or oversight. 

According to the Stanford study, the tide may be shifting. It turns out more boards opted to develop a continuing role for their founders than not.  And, half of those that did not, regretted their decision. They believed the transition would have gone better had they pursued a continuing role for the founder.

Knowledge, relationships, and passion

What’s lost by not including a founding director in a transition and perhaps beyond?  Founding directors often possess a deep and enduring knowledge of the organization and the external forces that impact it.   They have frequently built and maintained important, trusting relationships.  They also bring a unique passion for the mission which they likely helped develop over their tenure.  These attributes can be difficult to replace and often take on heightened emphasis in a search for the next leader.  It can be an expectation that the new leader “hit the ground running” in these key areas, sometimes to the detriment of other attributes that will serve the organization’s future.

How organizations leverage these gifts in a continuing role without risking the typical pitfalls noted by the proponents of a clean break will be different for each organization.   Like most things worth doing well, carving out a continuing role with a founding director takes planning and planning takes work.   This work can be done in the larger context of succession planning, an ongoing dynamic process that every nonprofit organization should undertake. 

Call us if we can help assess and evaluate the most appropriate and impactful role for your departing leader. 

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