The Grantmaker’s Role in Leadership Transitions

Four Foundation Approaches to Leadership Transitions at Nonprofits:

  1. Addressing leadership transitions systematically through a foundation-wide program. 
    Example: One foundation, for example, invites grantees to apply for transition assistance through a competitive process that includes spelling out how the board, current CEO, and successor will be involved. The foundation also requires a brief proposal from a consultant — identified by the organization, sometimes with help from the foundation — who agrees to help with the transition.

  2. Strategically approaching the grantees with whom you work. Some grantmakers choose to be proactive with grantees critical to their field or community. For example, a grantmaker at a large national foundation saw that the first generation of leaders in a relatively new and fragile field were beginning to reach their fifties and sixties. She asked herself what she could do to help them think through their future transitions and encourage leadership development within their organizations. She hired consultants to provide support services to long-time CEOs who wanted them and made a point of raising the issue in discussions with upcoming leaders and within the field as a whole.

  3. Lending support when asked. Some grantmakers simply respond to requests for help with leadership succession when asked. The executive director of a foundation that focuses on economic and social justice recalled the case of a longtime executive director who came to her after he suffered a serious illness — his “wake-up call.” Worried that the organization was too dependent on him, he asked for help in thinking through how to move out of his job in the next year or two. His request gave her an opening to offer ideas for bringing his board of directors into the process.

  4. Getting involved when there’s a problem. When the board of a community housing agency terminated its CEO under what appeared to be unfair circumstances, one of the organization’s funders grew concerned. The firing had caused great distress in the community and much bad publicity. Moreover, the grantmaker heard reports that some board members may have been swayed in their action by conflicts of interest. When the board asked the foundation to help fund the search for a new director, the grantmaker took a draconian step: after careful consideration and with the endorsement of other funders, she responded that the foundation would help only if all members of the board agreed to step down. “If a board is not acting on its fiduciary responsibility to insure that an organization has the best possible leadership, then part of our job is to try to get that board to behave more responsibly.”

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by GrantCraft using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Executive Transitions.