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Transition events – moments like starting a new job, moving to a new city, ending a relationship – present opportunities to reflect and identify new goals worth fulfilling. Nonprofits experience many transition events, with perhaps none more significant than the arrival of a new executive director. Smart nonprofits will recognize this change as a chance for the board and new executive director to reevaluate aspects of the organization and its programs that can be improved.

What’s vital for a successful nonprofit leadership transition?

Early priorities listed in detail

  • The incoming executive director needs to outline in clear language where his/her initial focus will be and their expectations for the board. This approach sets a  transparent image about where the executive director envisions taking the organization next, while establishing expectations for board members. Board members who understand their role are more likely to meet and exceed expectations.

A forum for honest communication

  • Incoming executive directors don’t know many details about the organization they’re taking over. The board holds much of this information, information that would better inform the executive’s decision-making. But the board is unlikely to share these beneficial details with the executive unless they feel genuinely heard and safe to reveal truths. New executives who schedule listening tours focused on information gathering without judgement can make board members feel comfortable.

Agreement among board members to embrace the transition as a chance for reevaluation.

  • Before the arrival of a new executive, many organizations have strategic initiatives they’ve been working on for months or years. While some initiatives continue to operate because they’ve been successful, the arrival of a new executive director can be a great point look at those initiatives to see just how well they’re working and if there are opportunities to modify them or determine if they’re worth doing at all. The exercise can benefit the organization, but board members must acknowledge that the change in leadership may mean that some traditional programs may have to be put on hold or altered.

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