How The Nonprofit CEO Can Exit Gracefully
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Photo by Membio
Like many nonprofit CEOs, Tom Smith has held the position for 10 or more years. As he reported, and I agreed with his assessment, the association he heads was doing well. The membership has increased substantially, revenues exceed expenses each year, and through a series of development events, the reserve account now exceeds $2million. But Tom was not satisfied. He said the job has become “boring.” In his words, it’s like turning on automatic at the beginning of each year—adjusting to a new board chair, developing a budget and being alert for “Black Swan” events that nobody can anticipate. He quietly said to himself at the beginning of each year, “I wonder what the big problem is going to be this year?”
Tom had a preplan: Several years ago, he had purchased an avocado farm in California, and had a partner-manager operating it successfully. He and his wife planned to move there, once he decided it was time to leave his CEO position.
Other potential preplanning actions he might have taken:
- Buy a second home in a more temperate climate, as retirement dwelling.
- Quietly investigate the potential to join a nonprofit consulting firm.
- Assess whether or not he can be successful as a solo consultant.
- Quietly interact with contacts in nearby education institutions to determine how his experiences and educational credentials might qualify him for teaching or administrative positions.
- Review grant proposal requests from foundations and governments to assess how his expertise might match those of people needed to manage the grants. (Be certain none of this type of activity creates a conflict of interest with his current CEO position.)
- Register with search firm to test his “marketability’ for a more interesting CEO position. (Beware of any firm that requires a fee from you.)
Once preplanning is complete, discuss it carefully with your family, financial advisors and possibly with an attorney if a major relocation is going to be involved. Be sure that they view the change as you do. Make certain they don’t see a missed opportunity within the current position. Also be certain that the time frame is reasonable for the CEO and the organization. It would be a mistake for the CEO to leave when the CFO is planning to retire. Traditionally, a one to three year period is needed from first discussion to the time the CEO departs.
Inform the Board
This should be accomplished in several steps. First quietly inform the board chair. Then at intervals alert other members of the board, the management team and staff. The CEO has been around for a long time and has an obligation to prepare the organization for a major change. I recently watched a nonprofit executive group “tread water,” for 18 months from the rumors of the CEO’s departure through the selection of the new CEO and his arrival at the office. To develop a graceful exit, the incumbent needs to be aware of the situation and help provide s smooth transition.
Leaving With Dignity
Leave as scheduled. Any delay will extend the uncertainty that surrounds the transition. As noted above, nonprofit organizations have their own ways of remaining static during these transition periods. Your CEO nonprofit successor deserves better strong support.