MB Connection

How To Be A Good Outgoing Nonprofit CEO

After years at the helm of your nonprofit organization, you are planning a transition to a new role or to a new chapter in retirement.  A successful leadership transition requires strategy, planning, communication, time, and leadership.  While it is the Board’s responsibility to hire the next CEO (arguably the most important charge), the outgoing CEO can play an active role in preparing for a successful transition. 

Begin early and take the initiative – CEO transitions are complex and take time, so the earlier you start, the better.  Board best practice calls for leadership succession planning, but many Boards are reluctant to engage in the process with a successful CEO in place.  The CEO can work proactively with the Board to outline a strategy well in advance of a planned departure, allowing for a positive, intentional process.

Plan for succession – Succession planning should be an ongoing process for a CEO in preparing for leadership transitions throughout the organization.  A CEO should develop an internal talent pool by giving promising administrators added responsibilities to challenge them and broaden their skillsets in preparation for elevated roles.

Decide when to leave – Particularly for a founder or longstanding CEO, it can be difficult to know when it is time to leave.  Once that date is determined, it is important to stick to it.  Processes cannot be put into place without a specific end date or range. 

Prepare the organization – Even before publicly disclosing your departure plans, you and the Board can engage in an organizational assessment and undertake capacity-building work to ensure a strong and financially sustainable organization for your successor.  Wrap up the campaign, complete the building project, address any outstanding personnel issues, and finish as many special projects as the timeline allows.

Develop a Communication Strategy – Once you have informed your Board Chair and then full Board about your intentions, work with them to determine when and how to communicate the transition to various stakeholder groups.  Clear and proactive communication throughout a transition process is essential.

Serve as a Resource – As departing CEO, you can be a valuable resource to the Search Committee and executive search firm that is retained by the Board to facilitate the process of identifying your successor.  Depending on circumstances determined by the Board, you may have an ongoing role with the organization, or be asked to participate in the transition. 

Be of Service to your Successor – If you have been asked to play an ongoing role, you can provide counsel, intellectual capital and context.  You are able to explain and interpret the cultural, historical and interpersonal context.  You can make introductions and hand off relationships with internal and external stakeholders.  Most importantly, always allow the new CEO to determine where, when and how often these meetings take place, if at all. 

Exit on Cue – Once the transition takes place, hand over the reins, make a clean break and move on to your next adventure!