Preparing Executive Director Transitions for Organizational Success

GEO Annual Conference 2018
Philanthropy takes a look at what’s next at 2018 GEO Conference

It is an open secret in the nonprofit sector that organizations need to engage in succession planning, but few are doing it and fewer are doing it well. This is especially critical now when a tsunami of baby-boomer executive directors are retiring from longtime leadership. What’s the hold up? The truth is that leadership transitions present an overwhelming number of tricky issues, ranging from the personal needs of executive directors to the organizational requirements of the staff and the board.

In response, MissionWorks launched the first pilot of What’s Next: Leading a Thriving Transition in New England in 2014. Four years and 11 cohorts later, we have been able to expand the reach of What’s Next nationally, providing over 200 exiting leaders with the organizational and personal planning tools they need to ensure a sustainable transition for their organization and a graceful exit for themselves. 

At the beginning of this month, we attended the 20th Annual Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference in San Francisco to share lessons learned from our cohorts, as well as what we learned from our partnership with the four California-based foundations, the Durfee Foundation, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, that supported some of our work.

Our breakout session, Preparing Executive Director Transitions for Organizational Success, highlighted the challenges and strategies lifted up by the What’s Next curriculum, such as normalizing succession and sustainability planning with boards and restructuring nonprofit leadership to promote equity and inclusion in the next generation. With 64 percent of executive directors in the sector leaving in the next five years, aging and overwhelmingly white boards, and an urgent need for leadership development, participants were eager to hear the results of planning for the organization and the stories from life after the transition. What they found was a demystified process, tools to support thoughtful planning, and that there is indeed life on the other side.

The foundations supporting What’s Next are leading the pack by example at GEO through their focus on race and equity, evaluation and learning, and capacity building work. It is evident that philanthropy is going through its own tsunami of transition, and much like climate change, it is clear that planning for these transitions now will prevent catastrophic disruption for the next generation of leaders who will inherit these organizations and the sector.


Patrick Cutrona is the Program Coordinator for What’s Next and other cohort-based training and professional learning groups at MissionWorks

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