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Essential Steps to Hiring the Right Nonprofit Successor

By June 15, 2023October 19th, 2023No Comments

Whether it’s a startup, nonprofit, or government organization, leadership is a key factor that ensures the organization meets its goals. For nonprofits, leadership is often composed of founders who took their passion for a cause and poured it into the organization. Since nonprofits are so mission-driven, keeping that mission going after a founder or key leader leaves can be tricky. Your nonprofit employees don’t just work for you because they need to — they are usually there because they also believe in the work they are doing and in the vision of the founder or leadership team.

Successfully hiring a successor to a founder or leader can be a long process. You have to balance the long-term vision of the leader against the short- and medium-term needs of the organization. You have to find someone as committed to the cause, as knowledgeable, and as willing and able to lead as you. You also have to make sure that the new leader can inspire the existing team to maintain their passion for the cause.

Here’s how to ensure your successor is the right one for the organization:

Source early and often

Finding the right successor isn’t simply a matter of posting something on a job board. Since the process of vetting a successor can take a long time, it should be top of mind when you attend cause-focused events, interact with similar organizations, or even take stock of your current team. As you start your search, you can use this opportunity to identify and list the characteristics, background, and knowledge base that a successful successor should have. Although you probably won’t find someone who fits everything perfectly, this is also an opportunity to find someone who may have skills or knowledge that the organization lacks and is capable of bringing new strengths and approaches the mission.

Nonprofit work is often more collaborative than the private sector, so you likely have an extensive network of peers in your field that you can draw from when you begin searching. Creating a list either of prospects far before you formally start the process of vetting these candidates will give you the best chance of finding the ideal successor.

Test for an alignment of values and culture

One of the things that makes a search for a successor so difficult is the tension between the current needs and goals of your organization and the possibilities of where someone new might take it. Often, current leadership has been responsible for creating the current environment, and they don’t necessarily have an incentive to make radical changes. However, a fresh set of eyes can perceive issues that might be getting missed. This means your successor shouldn’t always be someone who will keep doing the exact same things.

It is important for the organization’s board to identify the degree they are looking for the new leader to change things up, versus hold to the existing mission and processes.  As you start vetting candidates, you should think about what can and can’t change. What are the values of your organization, and what has to be preserved? Your ideal candidate should align on these fundamental points, even if they have different strategic and tactical methods.

Get input and buy-in from your team

When you consider where a change in leadership can have the most impact, staff engagement should be at the top of the list. Even if your leadership is changing for totally innocuous reasons (retirement, moving on to a new project, etc.), change can cause a great deal of stress for your team members. Thankfully, with enough planning, you can head this off.

Getting buy-in from your team members when identifying a successor can encompass several factors, but it should start with transparency. You should explain the “what” and “why” of the search as early in the process as you feel is appropriate and keep your door open to any questions or concerns.

Another way to get buy-in is to solicit feedback from your team about prospective successors or to gather information about where they’d like to see the organization go under new leadership. You can also circulate an anonymous survey to nail down what qualities they most appreciate from leadership as well as any they feel could be improved upon.

These steps might seem small, but they can go a long way towards giving your team members confidence that they have a seat at the table and that their concerns will be heard, no matter who is in leadership.

Bring them in and make sure it’s a fit

As any recruiter will tell you, some candidates can interview well, look good on paper, but still not work out. Transitioning to a successor is a high-profile and high-impact process, one option is to bring a prospect in for a part-time, consulting, or subordinate full-time role as part of their transition. In addition to the basic assessment of culture fit, face-to-face interaction with staff, and competence, you are also giving them a chance to identify organizational issues or shortcomings and to propose solutions.

This process also enables you to come up with a mutually beneficial succession arrangement. Depending on the situation, you might want to keep a founder around in a limited role, which may be aa path that offers the greatest chance of success. If you choose to make a clean break from past leadership, overlapping with their predecessor gives the new leader time to adjust to their new role and responsibilities before they are required to make impactful decisions. In either situation, giving them a limited role during a trial period can be an ideal way to assess their core competencies and leadership skills while giving you time to assess the timing and structure of the formal transition.

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The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.

(Image provided by Tima Miroshnichenko)

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