Innovation In Philanthropy Lessons Learned: Founders Transitions
by Gesher Calmenson
On June 30 I retired as Founder and Executive Director of a non-profit that I began in 2003. At the end of many ups and downs, I’ve turned over an organization that has global impact, enough operating capital for six months, and an efficient and economical delivery system.
In just one month the new Executive Director has improved the organization. She more than doubled the size of the Board, with a concomitant doubling of the Board’s effectiveness, prestige, and resourcing. She has correctly rescheduled the launch of some new programs, and successfully launched new programming in a related but unserved demographic. So far, our second succession plan is working. “Second” because we tried once before. Here’s what we learned from our attempts:
- Protect your people. A small and dedicated group of people have helped bring the organization to the point where transition was in order. They built the organization with me, and plan to continue to serve. For them, the transition will have an influence on their livelihood, quality of life, and careers. For this reason, they should have a voice in choosing the new leadership. We were fortunate to be able to find our candidates within the stakeholder community.
- Make room for creative change. The vision and the values that have gone into founding the program and sustaining it are precious to those of us who do it. Make the opportunity for the new leadership to reevaluate both vision and values, and keep the door open for creative change.
- Add value. This has been an opportunity for the organization to add ingredients necessary for its next phase: different skill sets, different networks, different organizational know-how. It’s also an opportunity to broaden connections with potential financial support.
- Reframing the founder role. In our first attempt at succession, I made the mistake of holding onto some pet projects as a consultant. This seriously undermined the transition. Our experience taught us that that the new leadership should have complete control of the organization. At the same time, a welcoming space has been made for the founder’s voice as vision-keeper and counselor.
- Getting to know you. Although both of our successive candidates came from the stakeholder community, in the second instance we had the opportunity to have a pre-hire operational connection. The conversations and clarifications during this period helped make the transfer of authority seamless.
When it comes time for you to make this move, best of luck.