Executive Transition

Hiring and supporting the chief executive may be the most crucial responsibility of a nonprofit board.


Change at the executive level — whether planned or abrupt — requires the board to provide strong leadership and direction as it contemplates what the organization needs from its next leader.

Successfully managing the departure of an executive and the recruitment, hiring, and installation of a new executive is a complicated process that typically requires months of work. Boards can get ahead of the game by thinking through their desired course of action in either a planned or emergency transition — a process referred to as succession planning. The practice of succession planning —which should include ongoing updates to ensure that plans reflect the current operating environment — ensures that the executive transition isn’t unnecessarily drawn out by lack of clarity about the process and initial steps, which can have a serious negative impact on the organization. While only 27 percent of all organizations report that they have a written executive succession plan, all nonprofits should have one in place so that they are prepared in the event that the chief executive departs.

Research also tells us that the periods of executive transition can sometimes open up opportunities to think differently about organizational boundaries. A study of success factors of nonprofit mergers reveals that for 80 percent of the mergers studied, an executive director had recently left or was soon to retire in one of the pre-merger organizations. While merging organizations may not be the path for every organization facing an executive transition, our board openness survey suggests that boards may be more willing to explore this conversation than one might think.

The resources below can help your board establish a leadership succession plan, understand the phases of an executive transition, and lead the organization to its next stage of leadership.

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Guides, Tools, Templates, and Infographics


Written Resources

All 101-level topical resources listed below are available publicly. BoardSource members have access to 101, 201, and 301- level resources. Don’t forget to visit the BoardSource store for more resources and training on this topic.

A Guide to Succession Planning for Foundation Boards

101| Community resource. Vincent Robinson, founder and managing partner of the 360 Group, advises foundation boards to plan ahead for executive transitions.

Board Member as Interim Chief Executive

201| Members only resource. The timing for the changing of the guards is dependent on how suddenly the position is vacated, how comprehensive and time-consuming the search ends up being, and how quickly a new leader can accept the appointment. Often an interim management solution is necessary to ensure continuity and to avoid a loss of momentum.

Chief Executive Recruitment: Finding the Right Candidate

201| Members only resource. It sounds straightforward, yet as everyone knows, the work of a search committee tasked with finding a new chief executive can be fraught. Identifying which applicant will best match the chief executive position description turns out to be only part of the job. Figuring out, collaboratively and collectively, who is the right leader for the organization is the ultimate goal, and it can be as difficult as it is crucial.

Chief Executive Succession Planning

201| Members only resource. The board is responsible for finding and keeping the person most suitable to manage the organization. This task is not an isolated task. It is an essential part of succession planning — a proactive process to keep the management constantly aligned with the strategic framework of the organization.

Chief Executive Succession Planning Guidelines

201| Member resource. Chief executive succession planning can strategically position an organization for success before an expected or unforeseen departure.

Co-Chief Executives

201| Members only resource. Some organizations traditionally divide the executive leadership duties among two or more individuals. Others choose this option as an innovative way to structure management or to get through a strenuous period before the right person is found to manage the operations. Co-executive leadership­, however, does not come without challenges. Duties and relationships need special attention. Both chief executives and the board must feel comfortable about the arrangement.

Elements to Include in a Chief Executive Employment Contract

101 | Community resource. A chief executive employment contract provides security to both the executive and to the board, and makes absolutely clear the details of the compensation arrangement and the mutual expectations of the two parties.

Exit Planning for Retiring Nonprofit CEOs

101 | Community resource. Smart CEOs/executive directors acknowledge that they will leave their organization at some point. Read on to learn how CEOs can manage their retirement and prepare themselves and the organization for the next step.

Five Leadership Transition Types

101| Community resource. When an organization faces a chief executive transition, the first step the board must take is to identify what type of transition the organization is facing.

Founder’s Syndrome

101| Community resource. “Founderitis” and “founder’s syndrome” are terms often used to describe a founder’s resistance to change. When founderitis surfaces, the source of the dilemma often is a founder’s misunderstanding of his or her role in an evolving organization.

Four Tips from a First Time Board Chair

101| Community resource. Former board chair of The Communication Network, Stefan Lanfer, shares top four tips for incoming new board chairs.

Interim Chief Executive

201| Members only resource. Whether a chief executive leaves suddenly or after a previously specified time period, the board has a major job in finding the next leader of the organization.

Nonprofit Board Members Applying for Staff Positions

201| Members-only resource. It is not unusual for a board member to be interested in a staff opening in an organization. The board member may feel that she has the necessary skills and previous experience with this nonprofit. However, when a board member wants to move from governance to management or administration, it is important to follow fair hiring procedures and avoid any preferential treatment.

Nonprofit Chief Executive Job Description

201| Members only resource. The chief executive is responsible for the overall administration and management of XYZ, including service programs, fundraising, and business operations. The job description outlines the areas of responsibility include planning and evaluation, policy development and administration, personnel and fiscal management, and public relations.

The Role of the Former Chief Executive

201| Members only resource. There are many ways to keep former board members involved in a nonprofit, but it is more difficult to define the role of a departing chief executive. Is it appropriate to invite them to stay in close contact? Should a former chief executive join the board? Before answering these questions, it is wise to clarify the relationship between the former chief executive, the new chief executive, and the board.

The Top Five Ways to Mess Up Hiring the Right CEO

101 | Community resource. There are few board responsibilities more important than hiring the right chief executive, as any board member who has had to remove the wrong one knows. And yet, even smart boards mess up the hiring process. Here are five common mistakes, ranging from least to most problematic, and tips on how your board can avoid making them.

Transitions to New Leadership: The First 1000 Days

301| Members only resource. Nonprofit leadership transitions can be risky. Organizations seeking new leadership have, essentially, three choices: grooming an inside candidate, which is fairly uncommon; or seeking an outside candidate either from within or outside the nonprofit sector. This paper will focus on outside-candidate transitions.