Successful Transitions from Founding Directors
to the Next Generation

by Sherry Heuser

We know and love them--the people who advocate well for a cause, the ones we support by donating our time and money, even if we didn't know anything about the subject before meeting them.

They are willing to go beyond talking about the importance of an issue, and instead take action toward finding solutions to problems. They are founders of nonprofit organizations.

When founders retire or leave for other reasons, search committees can find it challenging to separate the individual's legacy of work and passion for the mission from the organization's current needs and future plans. Many struggle to balance honoring the past and respecting the history that established the organization and made it what it is today, and advancing the mission in an ever-changing environment, allowing the next generation to move the cause forward.

What elements are present in organizations that successfully transition from a founding director? Some qualities in common include:

  1. A readiness to have a new leader--especially one who will bring his or her own personality, style, history, experience, strengths, and vision to the position and organization.
  2. An understanding of what the current and expected organizational needs are, focusing on finding the right fit in a leader to address the priorities and plans, without either trying to find a clone of the founder or reacting the polar-opposite way and looking for someone extremely different.
  3. Open and honest communication of the organizational needs and plans.
  4. A team--staff, board, donors, stakeholders, and community members--that agrees on the needs, priorities and plans. Guaranteeing that everyone who needs to be part of the process is involved is critical to accomplishing consensus.
  5. Clear identification of the key decision-makers for the process, and authorization for them to act on behalf of the organization.
  6. A careful evaluation of the internal relations, organizational structure, culture and environment, and tasks and roles, and an understanding of the impact these have on the search process and, ultimately, on the newly hired employee.
  7. A willingness to consider applicants who are different from the founder and who the committee envisions as the next leader--both on paper and in person.

The Bottom Line:  In the end, to successfully transition from a founder to a new leader, a search committee must recognize that they seek someone to lead the organization through its NEXT phase, not the previous phases.

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