Nonprofit Leadership: Smooth Successions and Successful Starts

In today's society, nonprofit organizations play an invaluable role, providing critical services to some of our country's and world's most vulnerable individuals and driving real, positive impact. But under increasing pressure to demonstrate outcomes with ever-tightening financial resources, nonprofit leaders have their work cut out for them.

Effective leadership is needed now, more than ever. But turnover among nonprofit executives is also high. So how do nonprofits that are serious about their sustained impact ensure they select the right individual to lead their efforts and set him or her on a course for long-term success? And how do new CEOs prepare for their role and set themselves up for success?

I had the opportunity to discuss these very questions with Joe Boland from FundRaising Success. Here are a few tips and strategies for a smooth leadership transition and a successful new CEO:

Organizational culture and strategy are the most important factors in selecting a new CEO.
What is the organization's five -- and 10 -- year plan? Is the charity rapidly expanding or in the early stages of growth? Each of these circumstances require different leadership approaches. Both organizations and CEO candidates should consider these challenges and questions carefully before making a final decision.

An organization's culture is also one of the biggest challenges for new CEOs. They must either align their leadership with the existing culture -- if healthy and vibrant -- or focus significant attention on re-committing the staff to the mission and core values and building a more cohesive team.

Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the Board and CEO -- throughout the transition process and beyond.
Both the board and CEO are critical players in a nonprofit's success and effectiveness. It's important to clearly define how these roles differ and where the responsibilities of each lie.

In my view, the best governance structures are ones that follow the "noses in, fingers out" rule. After partnering on setting the strategic vision, the Board manages and leads the CEO -- setting high goals, reviewing all operations and asking tough questions to hold the organization accountable -- but the CEO manages the staff and all day-to-day operations. Board members can and should peer into all aspects of the organizations' operations, they just shouldn't touch anything.

Don't get caught off guard: Create a succession plan now.
Nonprofits need to have a plan in place for leadership change at all times. Studies show that compared to internal candidates, outsiders have more than double the turnover rate and their organizations are less likely to perform successfully relative to their peers. A sound succession plan, coupled with an ongoing leadership development program that prepares high potential leaders for the CEO role, is essential to a smooth leadership transition.

Make the first 90 days count.
The first 90 days in the new CEO role is the most critical for success. Any new CEO should focus initially on the organization's people -- asking questions, observing management styles, and gaining a greater understanding of expectations. He or she should meet individually with each Board member, spend significant time with the senior management team and host team meetings to get to know individual staff members. It's also a good idea to develop a strong working relationship with the head of the human resources department to review past performance evaluations, identify opportunities for leadership development and discuss unfilled positions.

In the end, nonprofits exist to serve. To be an effective nonprofit leader, CEOs need to focus not on their own personal goals, but on the people they serve and the people who donate their time and talent to support their cause.

As one of my favorite authors on leadership, Jim Collins, describes, the most effective leaders are those who blend professional will with personal humility. Especially in the nonprofit world, the most successful nonprofits are led by CEOs who demand outcomes and have a vision for the future, but also remember that the cause is more important than themselves.