Working Transitions in Nonprofit Organizations

The volunteer leadership has to understand the difference between sharing information in a way that reflects positively on the agency and providing information in an effort to be transparent that will suggest a weakness in the nonprofit organization.

by Stephen G. Donshik

When a colleague struggling with a dilemma approaches me to seek some counsel and advise, our discussions often stimulate me to think about what can be implemented to strengthen nonprofit organizations in general. Recently my advice was sought by a colleague who was working with an agency that was in the midst of two major transitions: Its CEO (chief executive officer) and FRD (financial resource development) professional were both being asked to leave at the same time.

Apparently the CEO had not been fulfilling his responsibilities, and that included supervising the FRD professional. The CEO could not demonstrate his ability to manage the organization and its staff. As a result the organization was not operating efficiently and effectively. The board and the staff had been aware of this situation for a long time, but were reluctant to fire the CEO because he was committed to the mission and vision of the organization and they kept hoping he would be able “to grab hold of the reins.”

The board was finally moved to action by frustration not with the CEO directly, but with the poor performance of the development professional – the FRD’s professional’s inability to raise new funds and to maintain the commitment of long-time donors. Finally there were a sufficient number of fundraising failures and loss of supporters that the board used its influence and the staff person left the organization. This process brought to light the CEO’s weaknesses and his demonstrated lack of professional leadership. The board then realized that the CEO needed to leave as well. It worked out a scenario and process for the CEO to leave in a respectful manner.

The board directors were unsure how to communicate to their donors and the community the fact that two critical positions were vacated and then being filled at the same time. They suggested to my colleague that a letter be sent out to all donors announcing the change, and they wanted to go so far as to issue a press release announcing these major changes.

My colleague, who was consulting with the organization on other issues, thought it was unwise for the board to take the assertive step of issuing a press release. He wondered how the board could maintain that it had failed to fulfill its responsibility for oversight of the agency and at the same time put a positive spin on what the agency was going through. He knew that the board had to deal with the changes, but his dilemma was how to present these two staff changes so they could reflect positively on the organization and not be viewed as a sign of weakness. He was not sure what action to recommend to the chairperson of the board.

In our discussion, I separated the two issues: (1) the board search and hiring process, from beginning to end, and (2) public communication about it. First I asked him whether he thought the board was ready to hire a new CEO. Given its recent track record of hiring someone who was unable to manage the organization successfully, perhaps the board should undertake a thorough review of the CEO position and create a job description to use to guide its search for a new person.

I suggested that the board had been reluctant to fire the CEO and waited too long to do so – until it was blatantly clear that he was not appropriate for the position. If, before hiring that CEO, the board had developed a clear job description based on its understanding of what the organization needed in the executive position, then perhaps the present situation could have been avoided. I thought it was better for the board to take its time now and work to fully understand what the agency wanted and needed so the two could be aligned with each other.

Once the board completed the process of reviewing the description of the CEO then it could begin the search and decide how to implement the search process. It should focus on creating a search committee made up of people who knew the workings of the organization and understood the reasons the CEO was being released from his position. Since the CEO would be responsible for the FRD function and for supervising the new director of resource development, I suggested that the new CEO should be asked to create a job description for the new FRD professional and then hire that individual based on that.

The process of the new CEO engaging a FRD professional would provide an excellent opportunity for the board and the CEO to work together to strengthen their fundraising. The new CEO might think about involving a number of the high-end donors in the search process so they could interact with applicants and see which ones would create a positive professional image in raising needed funds. The CEO should also reach out to donors who had been reluctant to continuing making contributions because of the previous FRD professional.

In terms of the second issue, the public relations aspect, I counseled my colleague to advise the board not to make a general announcement about the staff vacancies. Instead, after the search process was completed, the board should send out a community-wide press release announcing the hiring of the new CEO. This way the board could focus on the strengthening of the professional leadership to move the organization forward and acknowledge how it would enable the agency to meet future challenges in the provision of services to the community. Making the information public once the new professional was engaged would thus be done from a sign of strength and not from a position of weakness.

At that time the board could send out a letter to donors announcing both the engagement of the new CEO and the process to be implemented to engage a new FRD professional. The board president could let the donors know that they would be contacted as soon as someone was engaged and that this person would be reaching out to all donors to strengthen their connection to the organization. In the mean time they should feel comfortable to contact either the CEO or another professional who would be happy to assist them in this time of transition.

The volunteer leadership has to understand the difference between sharing information in a way that reflects positively on the agency and providing information in an effort to be transparent that will suggest a weakness in the nonprofit organization. Of course, if there are inquiries from donors and supporters of the organization they deserve to know that a decision has been made by the board to engage new professional leadership that can further develop and strengthen the organization.

I thus strongly advised my colleague not to endorse the sending out of a press release that the two people occupying these key positions had been fired. This would present a negative to the entire community. Making the information public after the new professionals were engaged could be done from a position of strength, not of weakness.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.