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Jun 6, 2013

Change: When to Move On or Out

I just came back from a great one-day conference in Kansas City sponsored by  Neighborhood Housing Services of Kansas City.  I was joined by Tom Darden, who is doing remarkable housing reconstruction in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, and Paul Light, a quick-witted NYU professor with enormously broad experience in the public policy and nonprofit world.  In the course of Q&A we were stunned by a nonprofit board member who asked what to do about a founder-CEO who has lost her spark and was dragging the nonprofit down.  The board felt powerless because the CEO ignored the board’s suggestion that she form a succession plan.

What stunned us was the board’s reluctance to do the obvious: impose a succession plan and orchestrate the CEO’s retirement.  We all know about founder’s syndrome:  the clinging to original vision without regard to changes in the community’s needs.  I though it worthwhile to excerpt this key passage in the chapter “Change: When to Move On or Out” from my book More Than Just Money:

It takes great skill to manage the potential conflict and disagreement about changing the direction of a nonprofit.  Many mistakenly equate respecting a nonprofit’s legacy with perpetuating its legacy.

A skilled CEO will demonstrate respect while encouraging change. …sometimes it is the chief executive who does not recognize the change in the community and who clings to the status quo.  This can be a particular problem with a founder of the nonprofit or one who has served so long that he has invested his personal identity so strongly with the organization that he can no longer look at the organization objectively.

If the board does see the need for the organization to evolve but the chief executive does not, then the board has the task of asking the executive to move on.  A well-defined succession plan can be a good tool to anticipate the inevitability of change and executive transition and save the organization from the trauma of a board-initiated coup.

Those who are concerned that their nonprofit is not keeping up with the evolving needs of the community should read the entire chapter “What’s Next for Nonprofits” in More Than Just Money.  If the board is struggling with focusing on strategy for the future and needs tools to help it stay strategic, have them read Linking Mission to Money, my book of tools to help boards govern strategically.