The Succession Set-up

By Don Kligerman  |  December 7th, 2017

Among the most important decisions an organization will make is selecting its leader. Yet, a recent study estimated that while 66% of nonprofit executives expect to leave their jobs within five years, only 13% of nonprofit organizations have succession plans.  If selecting its top executive is so critical, and one of the few variables over which a nonprofit has total control, how do we get it right?

Fairmount Ventures maintains an active practice in executive search; here are some things we’ve learned along the way.

  1. Start early: cultivate internal leaders

Succession planning is not a point-in-time event triggered by an executive’s imminent departure. One expert suggests reframing the issue as “succession development” rather than “succession planning.” That is, create a practice of preparing future leaders by integrating professional development with succession planning in order to identify and nurture future leaders.  This has the additional benefit of improving overall organizational performance. In the for-profit sector, researchers found that companies with well-structured programs to groom internal candidates to be their next CEO (e.g., General Electric, IBM, Procter & Gamble) outperform their peers.


  1. Distinguish between the executive’s and the organization’s needs

Determining the timing and process of an executive transition can be a delicate process, especially when a long-term leader is stepping down.  While executives deciding to move on should help set the timetable, the board needs to have the final say on how the process unfolds.  Outside counsel can help frame and facilitate this discussion by establishing objective criteria.

  1. Explore the optimal characteristics of your leader for the next 10 years

Chances are the coming decade will look different than the previous one, i.e., evolving community needs, funding, technology, competition, public policy, best practices, etc. Rather than ask, “How do we replace our current, beloved executive?” consider what will be asked of the next leader. Take the time to engage the board and senior staff in discussions in order to achieve greater consensus about the next leader’s essential attributes.

  1. Invest in the board’s understanding of what it takes for the organization to succeed

For board members to effectively govern, they need to understand what skills, knowledge, and leadership style are optimal to manage the nonprofit.  How should the executive be dividing his/her time between internal and external tasks? While staying in their lane, at least some board members need to understand the organization’s inner-workings in order to discern what will be essential in the next executive.

  1. Clarify the outgoing executive’s role

The current executive can be a source of support to the board without usurping its responsibility in selecting the next leader:

High performing organizations do not leave succession to luck or last-minute planning. They openly discuss it on an ongoing basis.

Time to discuss succession at your organization?

We’d be happy to be part of the conversation.

Give us a call at 215-717-2299 for a consultation, or email us at

Aimee resized 4Aimée Miller, Senior Vice President & Partner, focuses her client work at Fairmount Ventures on resource development strategy, program design, and annual and campaign fundraising to benefit a diverse mix of arts, civic, environmental, education, health, and human service organizations. Much of Aimée’s work leverages her expertise as a writer and editor by crafting compelling messaging to help nonprofits increase revenues from public and private sources. Aimée earned a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied at the Annenberg School for Communication.

FV: You’ve been a partner for a majority of the 22 years that you’ve worked at Fairmount Ventures. How would you characterize the firm’s contributions to nonprofits in Philadelphia over the years?  How would you characterize the contributions of nonprofits to the city we live and work in?

 AM: I’m tremendously proud of the work Fairmount’s done since our founding in 1992, often quietly and behind the scenes, to advance and accelerate our clients’ missions and impact. While the specific needs of our client base sometimes shift – usually in response to policy changes, trends in philanthropic markets, and the evolving needs of its service communities – Fairmount’s business mission of helping nonprofits grow and thrive through planning and fundraising remains constant. The city’s nonprofit community inspires me daily with its creativity, willingness to advocate for constituents, and (this being Philly) its “get it done” spirit. Fueled by our support, our clients create new parks and green spaces, build affordable housing, connect families to jobs and education, spark joy through the arts, provide care and dignity for vulnerable people, and connect us as a community. Philadelphia thrives because of their leadership and empathy.

FV: What do you like most about your work?

AM: It’s hard to distill it down to one thing! On a personal level, whether I am in the office or out somewhere in the city, I’m happiest knowing that our work directly touches people’s lives for the better. I’m constantly humbled that our work takes me to parts of the city and region that get me out of my own bubble and helps me better understand how other people experience life in Philadelphia – both the positive and the challenging.

Professionally, I love helping organizations strategically position themselves to attract new resources to support their mission. As a writer by nature, I’m energized thinking about how a nonprofit can translate its vision and goals most effectively to stakeholders that want to invest in social good. The opportunity to work across sectors and nonprofit fields also provides an excellent vantage point to see the big picture, connect clients to opportunity, and learn something new. Our clients and our Fairmount team are all so smart, driven, and compassionate. We collaborate and build on each other’s expertise every day.

FV: What’s the best piece of counsel you can offer a nonprofit leader who might be grappling with what’s next for his/her organization?

AM: Know yourself. What does your organization do best, if not better than any of your peers? Next, how might you build on that core competency in the future while making sure that the people you’re serving will continue to benefit and advance from your efforts? Third, what do your customers – philanthropy, government, fee-based supporters, et al – think about your organization and what you should do next? While Fairmount takes a contextual, individualized approach to advising all of our clients, these questions ground and drive much of our work. Understanding your organization, your client base, and your markets is an essential starting point. This holds true whether a nonprofit is thinking about strategic planning, seeking new leadership, or launching a capital campaign.

FV: What are some of the project/client highlights that fuel your passion for nonprofit consulting?

AM: I’m privileged to support such a wide range of successful projects. As a lead in Fairmount’s resource development practice, I’ve advised and led many large grant applications and donor solicitation processes, resulting in tens of millions of dollars to help clients expand services or build a new asset. Some past highlights include securing multiple federal demonstration grants for community-based and mobile HIV testing, care, and prevention; raising private funds to reimagine and revitalize Franklin Square; and supporting public-nonprofit collaboration to bridge the digital divide in Philadelphia. Currently, I’m working on campaigns that will create a new public space for Holocaust education and remembrance in Center City, preserve and expand free play and nature learning opportunities for children in East Fairmount Park, and transform a facility and expand intergenerational programming for a human service organization in East Germantown, among others. Getting the “we got the grant” call from my clients makes my day, every time.

FV: From high school to college and throughout your career, you’ve called Philadelphia home. What are some of your favorite aspects of the city?

AM: Like all natives, I grew up steeped in Philly’s underdog attitude. But having lived briefly in Paris and D.C., and as someone who loves to travel and experience daily life in other cities, I embrace Philly’s strengths and potential. I’m honest about the city’s struggles to stay affordable and provide equal opportunity for all; that’s where our work comes into play. But I love our walkability, our diversity, our DIY culture that generates world-class food, music, art and community spaces on a shoestring, our increasingly more appreciated parks, and yes, our grit. Did I mention our food?

Get to Know Fairmount Ventures: Molly Botnick, Associate

By Aimée Miller  |  September 25th, 2017

Molly BotnickMolly Botnick, Associate, is dedicated to helping nonprofits pursue social justice and to assist them in serving their communities more effectively. With a background in social work and direct service, she brings a ground-level perspective of the issues facing underserved Philadelphians to Fairmount Ventures. Molly earned her B.A. in International Studies at Kenyon College.

FV: After graduating from Kenyon College, you gained both direct service and social work experience at City Year and Congreso de Latinos Unidos—how do you apply your takeaways from those roles to your work at Fairmount?

MB: After graduating from Kenyon College I felt that it was really important for me to work in direct service to learn from, and work with, different communities in order to get to know Philadelphia from a different perspective than my own. I always intended to work in the non-profit world but experienced that it can sometimes be a prescriptive process. While working in case management and direct service I learned that the best experts on any given issue are the people utilizing the services or experiencing the problem. Sometimes we forget to stop and listen. The organizing principles to my work (and life) are to listen to others, and to utilize the tools and talents at my disposal to amplify the voices of those who often go unheard. Since we are supporting organizations who, in turn, directly serve the community, our work at Fairmount takes a more indirect approach. However, I still apply these principles to my work every day as we help to solve the issues facing Philadelphia, by working with our clients to ensure that planning processes reflect community voices and that fundraising aligns with mission and community needs.

FV: What does a typical day look like for you?

MB: A typical day for me at Fairmount is comprised of internal meetings with my project team, research and grant writing at my desk, and organizing and attending client meetings. Fairmount’s diverse portfolio of clients means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to an issue, so we spend a lot of time brainstorming, discussing, refining…and discussing again. Did I mention discussing? Since each client needs an individualized approach, time management and organization skills are key to successfully balancing multiple clients at once.

Collaboration with our internal teams is essential and also one of my favorite parts about working at Fairmount—everyone is thoughtful, creative, and cares deeply about their work. It’s a great feeling to finish a project and reflect on how it evolved, what proved to be true, and what needed to be changed or adapted along the way.

FV: You’ve mentioned having a deep passion for engaging in dialogue about the challenges that we face as a society—what’s it like to have the opportunity to work with a number of clients who address those issues head-on?

MB: The nature of our work really gives us a “bird’s eye view” of what is happening in the city and a sense of what Philadelphia might look like in 10-15 years. It is a pleasure and privilege to support incredible organizations that are working to make Philadelphia a more equitable, tolerant, and culturally rich community—thinking about all the innovative and thoughtful work that is going on here right now makes me hopeful.

FV: What’s one of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on so far?

MB: When I started at Fairmount a year and a half ago, I was assigned to a team to write grants on behalf of Episcopal Community Services (ECS). The organization has gone through a tremendous change over the last year and recently adopted a new strategic direction that focuses on long-term, intensive coaching geared toward economic mobility. This innovative approach to service delivery is really exciting and watching a large organization adeptly pivot their mission and service delivery in order to respond to the needs of their community has been really inspiring. Fairmount’s role with ECS has been to help them craft their new case for support and find new sources of funding for this unique approach. ECS so clearly takes their responsibility to provide high quality services seriously and it is a pleasure to support them in seeking the financial resources to make their vision a reality.

FV: What are some of your favorite things about Philadelphia?

MB: This is not a secret by any means, but the food scene here in Philadelphia is pretty amazing, and super fun to explore, and it is a great way to support local businesses here in Philly!