3 min Read
December 11, 2014

Staying on track: How to survive leadership transitions at your nonprofit

Gareth Carter

Alongside death and taxes, change is the one constant we can all count on, and while most nonprofits have no fears about their mortality—and benefit from favorable tax status—they are not immune from fundamental shifts in the nature and makeup of the organization.

Leadership transitions can be a time of uncertainty for all companies. In the case of nonprofits, the challenges of dealing with such transitions are often exacerbated, since they can involve the departure of the organization’s founder, or a high-profile representative.

The communications department has a key role to play in navigating the process of waving goodbye to one leader and welcoming another. While identifying how your organization will communicate externally and internally is important, ensuring that you retain consistent and familiar branding, and working to get buy-in from a new Executive Director regarding your communications strategy, can be key in surviving the inevitable tumult which accompanies leadership transitions.

Here are some helpful tips on how your communications team can help make sure the introduction of a new leader runs smoothly, and that your ongoing work of raising funds and doing good can continue without pause:

  • Make sure people know how to talk about the transition. Everybody within your organization should be able to clearly communicate the nature and timing of the leadership transition to current and prospective partners, members and donors. It’s probably a quirk of human psychology, but the inability of staff to coherently explain the transition to an external contact may carry more weight than any number of positive press releases. Engaging your staff early on in the process will enable you to answer any questions, keep staff informed of the transition timetable and respond to any internal concerns prior to disclosing the news publicly.

  • But don’t be too eager to talk about it. While staff, board and certain key donors will be keenly interested in the leadership transition, it’s likely that, in most cases, your general donors will care significantly less! While it may be tempting to advertise the leadership transition widely, be wary of causing email fatigue by inundating members with news that may have little relevance to them.

  • Be consistent. The onboarding of a new leader can be disruptive to the established ways of doing things – indeed, this may be one of the key drivers for the change! – but retaining consistency of message during the transition is of paramount importance. While the inclination may be to accompany a new leader with a hurriedly-revamped communications structure, the likely result of this will be to confuse and potentially alienate your audience. While communications should never be allowed to go stale, a regular and unfluctuating approach to messaging will help avoid confusion among your audiences.

  • Get on the same page as soon as possible. Often new leaders will want to make their mark right away, and one of the most visible ways of doing this is through changes to your organization’s visual identity. It’s important that the communications department walk the new leader through the strategy which underpins the elements of the brand, including tracing the steps taken to identify the fundamental characteristics of the organization which are reflected in the branding. While there is clearly scope for fresh ideas, your brand ultimately needs to reflect the personality of your organization, otherwise you run the risk of a disconnect between how you see yourself and how you present yourself to your audiences.

There is clearly no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with leadership transitions, and each situation will differ, just as the character, profile and working practices of each leader are different. However, by making sure all staff are on the same page about the changes, by maintaining consistency in how you communicate with members, and by engaging with the new leader on the underlying strategy behind your current brand, you put your organization in a strong position to ensure a smooth handover and a positive start to the new leader’s tenure.