I Heard it Through the Grapevine…
potential hazards of nonprofit leadership change
by Jonathan Zeichner, CEO of A Place Called Home
Stardate: 2022.4.23 Days to Transition: 68
In Part One of this 4-part series you can read about my reasons for my departure from A Place Called Home and the job I love. This will be a major personal change, which includes some risk, but I am even more concerned about how this transition will go for APCH. Why? Well, to be blunt, the nonprofit sector and philanthropy don’t have a stellar track record when it comes to longtime leaders moving on. In this installment I’ll share a bit about why I think leadership change is a good thing, and I’ve invited some guest contributors to join in exploring the subject and how the sector can do a better job of “normalizing leadership change.”
Two of my good friends are parenting triplets. The young’uns are in their 20’s now, but I remember when they were just past toddler stage and careening around, chasing the next shiny object on their wobbly little legs, regularly heading in three different directions at the same time. I used to watch in awe as my buddy, looking like some kind of stressed, breathless border collie, hair flying in the wind, repeatedly corralled them back to safety. I asked him once how he was handling it all, and he looked at me with one eye, keeping the other on the triplets, and said, “Well, one thing I’ve learned – when they’re all zooming in different directions, go for the furthest one first and gather up the others on your way back.”
Turns out my friend’s strategy is very similar to what it takes to run a nonprofit. We are constantly juggling short, mid and long-term initiatives, while responding to spontaneous fires. And when stuff goes off the rails, as it will, we have to address the most urgent needs first and gather the others on our way.
Nonprofit leadership requires a strong constitution. Not infrequently I’ve heard people describe it as a “die at your desk” job. One of the most important requirements of conscientious leadership is to gauge our own energy and efficacy in real time, while assessing and cross referencing with what our organizations and constituents will need in the years ahead. While our mission may stay fairly constant, what was urgent and important in 2012 is very different from what’s needed in 2022 and what will be needed in 2032. “Am I still the right leader?” is a question that may not ensure job security, but it’s a question worth asking every few years – and if we are being honest with ourselves, we will know the answer before anyone else.
If and when that time comes for you to begin considering a change, hopefully your organization is healthy and strong, you’re on great terms with your staff, board and funders, and there’s ample runway to plan and prepare properly for you to move on with grace. Even then, there are likely to be sandtraps, both internal and external, that will surprise you. And, if you are leaving under duress, it will be even worse. Some funders may push their chairs back and cross their arms as they wait and watch to see what’s about to happen. Board and staff members may decide to move on, too. And, just about every staffer will experience anxiety regarding their job security under a new administration. Remember, whatever part of the story you don’t share, people will fill in for themselves. And, rumors can be very harmful to the process and the long-term outlook… for you and your organization.
Okay, change can be hard, but that’s not a reason to avoid it. I’ve left two other organizations, one voluntarily and one not so much, and this time I decided to preempt some of the hazards by announcing early and maintaining a transparent approach throughout the process. My rationale: if staff, board, funders, partners and constituents are in on the process, they can get the heebie-jeebies out early and start focusing on the future and their role in it.
Executive transitions CAN be disruptive to an organization, that’s true. But it doesn’t have to be that way! When an organization has an explicit, aligned strategy, intentional and equitable communications and decision-making processes, and proactive investments in leadership across the organization, they are set up to weather changes in any one personality and instead are appropriately focused on what matters most: the impact they are seeking to achieve. It is unreasonable and often unwise to rely on a single charismatic leader not only because of the risks that may pose but also because, when done well, new leadership can bring a fresh perspective or critical missing voices that are imperative for the future success of the organization.
Partner and Coach for Leading for Impact—Los Angeles
The Bridgespan Group
The pandemic has forced all of us to challenge our assumptions and navigate through a variety of unknowns, often working outside our comfort zones. In this context, the need for new leaders in the non-profit sector has never been greater. Change = opportunity.
What can we, as funders, do to support new leaders, especially young (under 40) BIPOC leaders, whose success will revitalize the sector?
- Show up in partnership without delay, providing multi-year flexible support.
- Help new leaders build strong networks of trusted allies and mentors.
- Recognize that new leaders bring new perspectives and ways of doing things, and be willing to support innovation and bold initiatives that are untried. Our very survival depends upon it.
Debra Nakatomi, Trustee, The California Wellness Foundation
The nonprofit sector has come a long way in a relatively short time. In my experience it was once excruciatingly normal for foundations to have policies that precluded funding for organizations undergoing executive changes. There are still many funders who maintain a “wait and see” stance during transitions, but the most impactful funders now work closely and intentionally with their grantees to ensure stability during times of change, especially when the organizations have shown themselves over the years to be trustworthy and impactful. This change in attitude is a necessary evolution to ensure the survival of the nonprofit sector. A national study of nonprofit executive leadership in 2006, titled “Daring to Lead”, revealed that 75 percent of nonprofit executives planned to leave their positions in the next five years but that only 29 percent of organizations had succession plans. Change cannot be stopped!
Hopefully more and more funders will work in tandem with grantees to build capacity, bench strength and stability so that leadership transitions can be times of introspection, planning and visioning rather than unraveling. An approach that would be powerful, and positive, for both philanthropists and nonprofits.
For our part, we are going to be devoting extra care and attention to the maintenance and development of our key donor relationships, so that we can help solidify their commitment to supporting APCH through this transition and into the future.
Katie Alheim, Chief Development Officer, A Place Called Home
Meeting monthly over the past year, our first NSI executive transition cohort members have learned a lot from one another – drawing upon the collective wisdom within the group, guest speakers, and a growing set of relevant resources – and the work has only just begun. Some of the common transition challenges discussed include:
- Learning to let go, decentralize authority within the organization, and hand off key relationships
- Documenting institutional knowledge, relationship histories, and processes/procedures
- Identifying the right board support and transition consultants for your organization
- Determining whether/how to engage the outgoing leader in a consulting relationship to support the new leader’s onboarding
- Fundraising for transition costs and a financial cushion for the incoming leader
- Considering shared leadership models
- Considering how and when to involve staff and other key stakeholder groups in the transition process, including the new leader’s hire
- Operationalizing equity values and preparing historically white-led organizations for more reflective leadership of the communities they serve
The NSI funders are committed to working alongside and listening to nonprofit leaders to understand and develop new thinking, planning and action around this critical topic. We look forward to sharing more soon!
Carrie Harlow, Director, Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative*
Thanks to my sage guest contributors! Their comments are spot on.
This is one of the most exciting and opportunity-rich times for our sector that I can remember. The nonprofit and philanthropy sectors have got to move toward a healthier attitude about leadership change because it will be a major factor over the next few years. Handled well, it will ultimately strengthen the sector and advance all the causes we believe in and are working toward. Handled poorly, it will do just the opposite.
To the foundations and other private sector donors that support A Place Called Home and other nonprofits: Thank you for all you have done thus far, and my hope is that from now on when you hear that a leader is leaving, you will lean in instead of out. By all means, vet new leaders and ask probative questions, but please step up to support the organizations that have proven themselves to you. The organization may have to recalibrate and the new leader and the board and secondary leadership may be reexamining the organization’s priorities and the ways things get done- and that is exactly what they should be doing. If the departing leader that you trusted has done their job well, they’ve assembled a trustworthy leadership team and the organization will not falter significantly when the CEO leaves, especially if you step up your support at this critical moment. Leaders may change, but the dedicated staff and core constituency of the organization should not be punished for that.
Thanks for reading this installment! Just two more to go… and I’m counting on being able to introduce you to the next APCH CEO in one of them… and then it will be time to pass the torch.
Changing the world starts at home.
*The Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative (NSI) is an LA-based fund that invests in nonprofit organizations during moments of transformation, such as strategic restructuring or executive transition. In 2021, the NSI launched a pilot executive transition fund to support organizations preparing for and experiencing the departure of a long-tenured leader or founder. Recognizing the challenges organizations face during an executive transition, the NSI aims to normalize institutional funding for the full spectrum of transition planning and implementation activities.
In early 2021, Jonathan Zeichner and APCH Board Chairs Barbara Glazer and Gareth Schweitzer, along with their peers from six other organizations, joined the NSI’s first executive transition cohort. In addition to receiving flexible transition funding from the NSI, participation in the cohort enables members to meet monthly with their peers, develop comprehensive transition plans, and discuss challenging topics they face at various stages of the transition.
If you’re reading this you’re likely already a member of our APCH extended family and you are aware of the upcoming transition of our beloved CEO Jonathan Zeichner. What you may not know is that Jonathan’s departure from APCH is one of dozens of important leadership transitions that will impact the Los Angeles nonprofit sector over the next several years.
True to APCH’s commitment to transparency as a core value, Jonathan, the Board, and senior staff have spent a year engaged in conversations and planning for leadership transition in alignment with our mission, and have partnered with colleagues and advisors to determine what APCH will need to continue thriving into its next chapter. It has been a wholehearted effort that will continue in the hands of the new CEO, senior management team and Board.
As part of this open process, we have created this space for our leadership, beginning with Jonathan, to speak directly to our community.