This article is from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s winter 2017 edition, “Advancing Critical Conversations: How to Get There from Here.”
Every leader and organization wants to make a difference. We call this mission results. BoardSource described that desire in the name of its annual survey: “Leading with Intent.” As leaders, organizations, networks, and communities, we have choices, and this article is about broadening the lens of our choices so that we can make more of a difference and speed up change for good in our world—expanding each leader’s capacity and will to lead with intent.
What follows will examine how what we (nonprofit leaders) believe about leading and change impacts how we traverse the unavoidable changes and transitions every organization faces. Our aim is to offer a path to connect the dots between what we broadly refer to as leadership and organizational transitions and leadership ethoses. It is our experience and conviction that mission results are better sustained and increased by intentionally paying attention to and managing well the predictable and unpredictable changes in leadership and organizations. And what we believe about who leads and how they lead influences our options and success in growing mission results over time. In this article, we will point out both what seems to work and what doesn’t.
There are reasons why not every leader and organization makes a difference. Most would like to make more of a difference; some are frustrated about it and wonder what to do. We know a lot about why some organizations get much better results than others, and we know some things about how to support boards, executives, and staffs to increase results. But we have a few barriers to overcome in order to fully use what we know, and to learn more:
- We are too often surprised and forced to act reactively to predictable organizational changes. Every executive and board leader will leave some day. Every person who adds value will, as well. What our mission is, and how we achieve it, is changing and will continue to change. Short-term success is very different from long-term sustainability and progress on mission. We deal with these and other facts of organizational life one at a time and typically only when forced to by circumstances, funders, or regulations. We are reluctant to accept that change is ubiquitous, permanent, and unavoidable, and that developing competencies in leadership and organizational changes and transitions is critical to sustaining high-performing organizations and excellent mission results.
- Leading a nonprofit organization requires passion, commitment, skills, and discipline. We are too often less than clear about the skills and discipline needed to make the most of the passion and commitment, and expect leaders to acquire these skills and discipline innately or miraculously.
- Organizations operate in a community and world with a culture and set of beliefs about leadership and who leads. There are many different views and beliefs about leadership, and these beliefs influence how well we lead, as well as our results.
Our (the authors’) experience with hundreds of organizations and research-based data make a compelling case for:
- Leaders becoming more proactive in ongoing attention to leadership and organizational transitions as a way to expand and ensure long-term mission results;
- Leaders making attention to leadership beliefs and practices (our leadership ethoses) an essential part of all transition planning, because these beliefs influence and limit or expand possible mission results; and
- Leaders—board, staff, funders, advisors, and consultants—learning continuously about the practices, disciplines, and competencies required to make the most of leadership and organizational transitions and build a culture of leader development and intentional attention to leadership beliefs and practices.
The Case for Action
In fact, there are two cases for action: what is not working and what is working. First, a look at what is not working:
- We have over twenty years of data on the predictability of executive transition and the sector’s limited attention to seeing transition as more than a search for the next leader. When key leaders leave, there is much more going on than just filling a position. Twenty to 30 percent of organizations take advantage of leadership transitions to advance mission results. Seventy to 80 percent largely miss or underuse the opportunity.
- Twenty years of talk about the racial diversity of nonprofit board and staff leadership has not increased diversity. In fact, recent data indicate that despite the stated desire by boards to expand their racial diversity, their composition has stayed the same—and the data offer little evidence that anything will change any time soon.1 Another recent study suggests that we are addressing this goal with a set of faulty assumptions.2
- Recent studies point to the need to make organizational sustainability a critical issue in annual and strategic planning and in looking at how to best increase mission results.3
In terms of what is working, there is a lot of progress that offers both hope and a guide to what competencies and disciplines have the most potential for increasing organizational results and board and staff satisfaction. What’s working is:
- Despite the complexity and generally accepted unique challenges of founder executive transitions, the combined attention to transition, sustainability, succession, and search greatly increases the odds of successful transition and sustained mission success.4
- Organizations that use trained external interim executives are able to use transition to advance organizational capacity and results.
- Organizations that engage in partnerships, collaboratives, and other types of association with others increase impact and appear to be more sustainable.5
- Organizations that go deeper in their exploration of diversity (beyond recruiting someone to that end for the board or an executive position) are