Leaving on a high note: 9 ways to align your leadership transition with your values

Two outgoing executive directors, Rye Young of Third Wave Fund and Rajasvini Bhansali, former head of Thousand Currents, share their insights into what executive directors need to consider before deciding to move on, and how to help pave the way for a new leader.

This article by Jennifer Lentfer originally appeared on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

1.  Leave when the money is flowing. 

Bhansali has complete confidence in her successor and, more important, wanted to leave her in a strong position. “I didn’t want to set up another person of color from the global south to have to hustle merely for survival as I did and spend all their creative energy in crisis management,” she says.

During Bhansali’s eight-year tenure, the Thousand Currents budget grew by a factor of eight – from $500,000 to $4.2 million at the end of fiscal year 2017, including a reserve fund of more than $1 million.

At the Third Wave Fund, Young believed in placing value on resources besides money — such as people’s time, energy, and enthusiasm — as they worked to reach Third Wave’s fundraising goals. He realized the importance of doing this when he observed community organizers doing activities that were not directly supported by grants or gifts. By putting the mission first, the group inspired people who wanted to be a part of its work, no matter how much money they brought to the table. This approach stabilized and expanded the group and brought in funding. In the last five years, as a community fund fiscally sponsored by the Proteus Fund, the Third Wave Fund’s budget grew from $83,000 to $1.75 million, and the staff has expanded from one to five.

2.  Leave before you burn out. 

Young highlights how important it is to put practices in place to prevent burnout and to leave while you still have energy and enthusiasm for the job. “You need to have some ‘oomph’ left to put into the transition,” he says.

Bhansali has another job as a trainer at the Rockwood Leadership Institute, which focuses on building the skills of nonprofit leaders. In that role, she watched too many people remain in the top job for too long. When this happens, she says, the organization starts to seem like it’s serving the leader’s needs rather than its mission. She did not want that to happen at Thousand Currents and was careful to be honest with herself.

3.  Seek out honest assessments of what the organization needs to continue to grow.

Executive directors must cultivate an accurate view of their own contributions, capacities, and interests at their organizations. Bhansali began to see gaps in her own abilities after eight years in the job. For example, while attending meetings about new technology needed for an increasingly complex organization, she thought:”I don’t know enough about that. Do I care enough to learn? I do, but am I the best leader for building that next iteration?”

4.  Be honest about what it means to give up power. 

Executive directors may often face existential crises, thinking, “I worked so hard to get here. I’m finally recognized. Now who am I going to be if I’m not an ED?” Bhansali says these are the wrong reasons to remain in a job. She acknowledges that she had to let go of her ego and her attachment to the role.

“To be put on a pedestal at the top of a hierarchy – it’s a thing,” Young says.  But you need to consider what’s best for the organization and its mission above all else.

5.  Attract people of all backgrounds, beliefs, origins, and sexual orientation to your staff and train them in leadership. 

The nonprofit world suffers from an acute lack of leadership opportunities for the kind of people we serve, says Young. Many surveys and studies about leadership diversity in nonprofits over the years attribute this to a lack of leadership pipelines.

Young says that at Third Wave, “we create an entry point for youth who’ve been overlooked [by nonprofit groups] and see them as the backbone of movements.”

“Nobody knew who I was when Third Wave took a chance on me. I was a line cook. I was a 22-year-old, gender-queer person in an awkward phase of transition. That doesn’t map neatly into a leadership role in philanthropy.” He wants more groups to take risks based on people’s potential and give them a chance to grow into leadership roles.

“Let them transform the work while they do it.”

6.  The board should lead the transition, but staff, grantees, and key donors should be involved in planning the transition from the start. 

Bhansali says long-term donors increased their general operating support in anticipation of the executive transition so the group could make changes necessary to support the new leader, such as restructuring the organization and adding new key positions.

Talking with the staff about the transition soon after the board approved her succession timeline allowed everyone to be well prepared for the handover. Their input also served as the basis for Bhansali’s work plan in her final year.

7.  Never forget that change is hard. 

One of the biggest lessons Young learned: Fear of change is human. “I didn’t quite understand how much attachment people have to the current director [and] the way things are.”

But instead of tiptoeing and worrying, Young decided to be open about the transition and talk about it in a positive way.  “I wanted to throw it out there in this completely comfortable, confident way: the way I wanted other people to experience it.”

“If we’re doing social-change work, how can we fear change?” he adds.

8.  You don’t have to know where you’re going or what you’re doing next. 

Young, who is planning to take a break after 10 years with Third Wave Fund, doesn’t know his next move, and he is fine with that. “It’s the many relationships that have been built over time that will secure the next thing,” he says.

Bhansali is also open to what is next for her. As she solicited exit advice from Thousand Currents partners, she received encouragement to play a continued role in social movements.

“It’s been really wonderful to feel in a way that I’m going to be deployed to my next thing, to take the lessons and learning from Thousand Currents and apply them elsewhere.”

9.  Reject old notions of “leadership legacy.” 

“I don’t buy into the mythology of the singular leader who saves the day,” says Bhansali. She feels the focus should be on whether the organization has what it needs to continue the work.

Reflecting on his role helping bring his organization back from the brink, Young says, it is important for Third Wave to operate with the same level of risk and boldness as it did when everything was on the line.

“We need to lead in philanthropy like we have nothing to lose. That feels to me like, not legacy, but coming back to the heart of the work.”

By Jennifer Lentfer