Moving Beyond the Person

Quote: "I wanted a good transition and I wanted to leave everything in a good place. The program affirmed for me that I was on the right track and the processes that I was putting in place would help us transition more smoothly while setting up the board and staff for success." - LuAnn Miller, former Executive Director of Isla Youth Projects

Report highlights the ongoing challenges nonprofits face in preparing for executive transitions.

In our report, Moving Beyond the Person, TSNE offers insight into the current wave of nonprofit executive transitions through an examination of the What’s Next: Leading a Thriving Transition program. With support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, this paper presents the evolution of the What’s Next program through the perspectives of 60 departing nonprofit executives and provides frameworks for personal and organizational readiness, highlights structural issues for succession planning that threaten the sector, and makes the case for the evolution of the current approach to leadership transitions.

Baby boomer executive directors, who in many respects are the founding generation of the nonprofit sector, are now leaving their organizations at an increasing rate. For decades, these leaders have leveraged their passions, commitment to the sector, and innovative spirit to establish impactful organizations.

However, even with volumes of research surrounding this long-predicted ‘silver tsunami,’ leaders considering retirement are realizing they are unable to navigate the personal and organizational aspects of departure without considerable planning, resources, and support.

Based on TSNE’ model for executive transitions and research in the field, it is known that the amount of quality support a leader receives before a transition is a key determinant in a successful process and the ongoing sustainability of an organization. In response, TSNE created the What’s Next program, a series of cohort retreats for baby boomer executive directors planning to depart their organizations in the next 3-5 years. What’s Next provides these leaders with support and applicable frameworks to prepare themselves and their organizations for the work ahead.

Moving Beyond the Person illustrates the dual responsibilities executives have in preparing themselves and their organizations for transition.

Personally, many leaders have made their organizations a pillar in their lives, and the prospect of a life without their work presents questions about their identity, legacy, and concern for the future. What’s Next supports outgoing leaders to celebrate their work, deal with feelings of loss and letting go, and plan next steps for retirement or encore careers.

From an organizational perspective, long-term or founding executive directors have a tendency to take on unhealthy workloads and some struggle to find time to prepare their organizations for success following their departure. What’s Next supports outgoing leaders by focusing on the need to build a board capable of managing the transition, developing a strong staff to keep the organization running, and engaging in conversations with funders for critical investments during the transition.

Although participants reported significant increases in their personal preparedness after participating in the program, the evaluation data also points to the need to use executive transitions as an opportunity to address leadership and organizational development issues.

Looking ahead, What’s Next aims to address four distinct priorities which have emerged from our work with participants and others, including: tackling the taboo of succession planning to focus more on enhancing organizational sustainability; building opportunities for others to lead and identifying new leadership structures; making diversity an organizational priority as part of the transition; and engaging the board in What’s Next with a companion curriculum.

Traditional models for transition and succession planning, including those in use at TSNE, are not enough to support the long-standing challenges that have plagued the nonprofit sector for decades. Boards, funders, and capacity building organizations have to expand our view of leadership transition and shift the focus from the individual person toward a structural approach that leverages transitions as an opportunity to strengthen the sustainability, growth, and impact of nonprofits and the sector as a whole.

Download the Report


More from Program Participants

After my sabbatical, I wanted to stay motivated to continue exploring the next stages of my life and my work. The program offered me protected time outside of the agency to think about my future. — Margie Martinez, Chief Executive Officer, Community Health Alliance of Pasadena. Read more.


Learn about What's Next: Leading a Thriving Transition

Learn our our transition planning for long-time leaders in the nonprofit sector. Apply by July 30, 2023 for the fall 2023 cohort.