This should be a collaborative discussion that starts from a place of mutual respect and concern. It should also not come as a surprise. Board members should be sharing concerns in an annual review process with the leader, informed by the organizations and the leaders performance. Board leadership should create an open dialogue over a series of conversations, asking the Executive Director questions like “How are you feeling about the organization, where it is heading, and how you are doing as Executive Director?”
These kinds of questions give the Executive Director a chance to open up and share what might really be going on. If the board believes there isn’t alignment between performance expectations and outcomes, it is important to understand the challenges the leader is facing, which may be personal (like a family crisis), operational (like staff not being in alignment), or organizational (like a drifting mission). The board shouldn’t assume that they know why things aren’t right, but they also shouldn’t ignore the fact that they aren’t. Like any relationship, it is crucial that the board invest the time and effort in trying to make it work so that if they do need to part ways, their Executive Director will not be surprised by the decision and the board will have met their responsibilities as a board member for duty of care, loyalty, and obedience.
Then, if/when the time comes, separating from a leader should ideally end on good terms by:
Before making any decision to separate, it’s helpful for the board to consider whether legal counsel might be needed. As a fiduciary for the organization, board members should be knowledgeable about any risks and seek advice in advance of reaching a decision. Additionally, it’s important to mention that when an ED needs to be terminated due to a serious matter with potential legal implications (such as embezzlement, sexual misconduct, or discrimination), that kind of scenario will necessitate a vastly different path of separation.
Of course, it may not always be possible to end on good terms. A nonprofit board looking to let their ED go is only responsible for one side of the equation. The ED will be responsible for how they handle themselves during the process as well. It can be hard to predict how an exiting leader may respond to a decision from the board to make a leadership change. Board members can do everything right and still have the process go sideways because of someone else’s attitudes and/or actions. Plan ahead for a number of potential responses to help protect the organization, employees, and mission.
What kinds of steps should you be taking when it’s time to separate from your nonprofit leader?
Be Prepared to Lead
In small and mid-sized nonprofits, the board can be overly reliant on the Executive Director, and they will need guidance on how to lead once the ED is gone. Do not expect that the ED will remain active and hands on after the board has decided on a transition. Even if there are no hard feelings, the ED will likely want to start disengaging from the organization to make the split easier personally and professionally as they determine what they will do next. As a result, this kind of direction is best provided by an external source rather than the ED themselves. Utilizing nonprofit board advisory services is a helpful way to get the kind of advice the board will need to move the organization forward.
If it makes sense to do so, the board will need to identify who else can help during the transition and approach these people, ideally after first starting the conversation with the outgoing ED directly. The order here is important – assuming an amicable transition, talking with the outgoing leader first will help ensure that they do not hear the news secondhand. Feeling like the board is going around them or behind their back is the fastest way to make an enemy out of someone that should your most important ally in the process.
It is possible that the Chief Operating Officer (COO), Deputy Director, or another executive role can fill some leadership capabilities on a short-term basis while the board looks for a new leader. In other instances, interim executive leadership will need to be hired. But regardless of who is taking on the work, it is vital to determine who will handle what during the transition. Everything from administrative details to donor relation responsibilities will need to be fleshed out.
Clearly Articulate the Reason for the Separation
When sitting down to have the conversation, the board must be able to articulate why a new ED is going to be the best move for the organization. The reason cannot simply be “needing a change.” Sometimes boards use this kind of language as a way to be intentionally vague because they do not want to offend the outgoing ED and other times it is used because the board doesn’t actually know what they are trying to accomplish. Either way, it’s a mistake!
A board needs to be able to point to the “why” behind their decision. As any employment counsel will share, the reason(s) for separation should be clear and nondiscriminatory based on the specific location of employment.
Is the board at odds with the ED due to differences in vision or communication styles? Is the organization failing to accomplish its mission or falling victim to mission creep? Has the organizational culture become toxic? Is the organization struggling financially due to poor decision-making or failure to meet philanthropy targets?
In some cases, the ED may feel the same way the board does. They may not recognize the organization they’re leading anymore or agree with its mission any longer. They may be burnt out and ready for a change. They may be feeling the effects of an unhealthy organizational culture themselves. The best leaders will know when it’s time to leave, and there’s a chance they have already been thinking about separating from the organization so this conversation will be a relief.
Communicate the Change
Once everyone is on the same page with what is going to happen next the change will need to be communicated. It’s critical to be timely and professional, and to make sure you have plan in place. Making sure everyone is on the same page and communicates the same message avoids tarnishing either the organization or the professional reputation of the ED. Protecting both will make hiring a replacement much smoother.
How the transition is communicated both internally and externally is one of the most important pieces to figure out. Where possible, partner with the outgoing ED to determine the messaging around their departure. Ask them how they want their exit to be portrayed and what is important for the organization and its key stakeholders to know. Hire a nonprofit consultant, if needed, to help with wording and disseminating the communication.
When communicating a change in leadership honor the service of the outgoing leader and highlight their contributions. Thank them for getting the organization to where it is today first and then elaborate some on what is expected to come next. The board should share a sense of stability and confidence, along with a clear plan for the transition period, as this will help calm staff, donors and community. But don’t go too far! Save the big strategy talk for when a new leader is announced – this is excellent material to use when announcing a new hire into the role.
When you need interim nonprofit leadership or nonprofit board advisory services, please reach out to us. We have a team of experienced nonprofit leaders ready to help your organization overcome its biggest challenges. Our team brings deep strategic and operational expertise with a wide variety of organizations to the table to better serve your organization. Find out what our clients say about how we have been able to help them affect positive change regardless of whatever obstacles they face. Contact us for a complimentary consultation!
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