Succession Planning Part 3: 4 Keys to Succeeding a Founder

In Succession by Karen Buck

People who found nonprofit organizations are a special breed. Passionate, hardworking, and loyal, they often have invested their blood, sweat, and tears to get things off the ground and build a successful operation. Donors, clients, partners, board members, and the community love them. They know where all the bodies are buried AND they know where all the organizational records are.

Heck, they even know how to un-jam the copier.

Who would want to follow that act?

Being the executive director who follows a founder is one of the most challenging situations a leader can face. Often, this second executive director doesn’t last a year. That’s hard on the person and the organization. Luckily, there are some specific steps you can take to make this kind of leadership succession more successful all around.

1. Download

Most founders have forgotten more about the organization than anyone else ever knew. Don’t lose that organizational history (or the knowledge of how to unjam the copier!). It takes time to download and document all of the history, processes, and expertise of a founder, so start now. Make documenting this knowledge someone’s job—someone other than the founder.

2. Acknowledge and Allow

When the transition in leadership is imminent, give staff, board, clients, and others the time and space to honor the founder and mourn the change in relationship between the organization and its founder. Acknowledge what will be different. Honor the founder and what he or she has accomplished. Allow time for closure and space for both grieving and celebration.

3. Clean Break

Make it explicit how and in what capacity it will be acceptable for the founder to re-engage with the organization. Don’t just turn around and put the founder on the board! Take at least six to twelve months to let the new leader start to feel at home and for staff, volunteers, and others to develop the habit of looking to the new person, and not the founder, for guidance. New habits take time and a founder who’s hanging around to “help out” can really confuse the issue and undercut the authority of the new leader.

4. Bridge

The board of directors should expect to play an increased leadership role as the founder transitions out and the new leader transitions in and gets up to speed. This keeps a leadership vacuum from forming and helps the founder feel better about leaving the organization and the new leader feel supported as they begin their new role.

As with any leadership transition, an organizational analysis is a helpful tool to ensure that the new leaders’ responsibilities are defined in terms of what the organization needs now, rather than in terms of what the founder excelled at.