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Ready for Change?

by Guest Blogger
We are pleased to offer this guest post by Hez G. Norton of Third Sector New England as part of our Mission Driven Leadershift series. Hez will be speaking at our upcoming Executive Leadership Forum in April in Waterville.

This past fall, Third Sector New England conducted a study of leadership in New England. We surveyed 877 leaders – primarily executive directors – and 330 board members of nonprofit organizations to advance our collective understanding of nonprofit leadership in New England – who these leaders are and the challenges they face.

transition graphAlthough nonprofits have exhibited remarkable resiliency over the past decade, the sector’s success and impact continues to rely on unsustainable trends including:

  • overworked and underpaid leaders and staff, a
  • never-ending fight to balance shaky budgets with fickle funding streams,
  • and little money for professional development and growth.

These are not new challenges for the sector, yet they continue to be chronic issues.

These challenges, coupled with the some key finding in our Leadership New England report, pose risks but also opportunities for nonprofits to prepare for the coming challenges of a changing sector. We are about to experience the biggest generational shift in this country as boomers retire. In our report, we found the 64 percent of leaders plan to leave their organizations in five years. Six in 10 of the organizations we surveyed have no succession plans.

The departure statistics on New England leaders, which generally mirror national numbers, underscore the importance of supporting organizations to prepare for leadership transitions more effectively. The percentage of leaders saying they will leave their jobs in the next five years has remained fairly stable across similar studies for a decade (we are just beginning to see the start of boomer departures) and calls for succession planning across the sector have been issued again and again in countless reports, blogs and other forums. Yet most organizations still do not have succession plans.

Let’s face it; succession planning is not something that excites people. Although it is a best practice for nonprofits like strategic planning, there are few resources to support succession planning, weak communication between leaders and the board about it (when a person plans to depart is a topic that is generally avoided given its sensitive nature), and misperceptions about what succession planning is.

A Major Shift

Now is the time for a major shift in our thinking: succession planning is not just about preparing for an individual leader transition, it is about ensuring organizational sustainability. It should include a process of identifying and addressing key strengths and vulnerabilities so that the organization is not dependent on any one leader and is more agile in the face of inevitable change. Succession planning touches on everything from framing choices for the future (including asking whether the organization should exist), developing sustainable business models, and strengthening staff and board leadership—in essence, all the core activities needed to support the success of the organization’s mission. Let’s stop using a term for a practice that is not widely understood or used, and replace succession planning with what it is at is core: sustainability planning.

If you ask leaders and boards whether they think a succession plan is important, they may say “no” given all the urgent priorities in front of them – but if you ask whether they think it is important for the organization to be sustainable the answer is “yes”. In Leadership New England study, respondents told us they want two things to prepare for transitions: more support to develop sustainability strategies, and support to develop key staff.

Many question the readiness of the next generation of leaders, whether they have the needed skill, passion and dedication to lead. But even the best and brightest leaders will have trouble stepping into leadership roles in a sector with chronic sustainability issues – and in organizations that are underfunded, overworked, have little to no bench strength and challenged boards. It is not a recipe for success. It is time for a change.

The next generation of leaders are interested in working on change with organizations that are sustainable, value a work-life balance, and support shared leadership or alternative structures[1] to build leadership across organizations. Investing in the potential of that leadership pipeline is essential to the sector but financial support for this is far from the norm. In fact, over the past 20 years annual foundation support for leadership development has totaled just 1% of total annual giving[2] a bewildering level of underinvestment given the importance of our sector.

The biggest leadership transition the sector has ever faced is now upon us, and this change creates an opportunity for the sector to improve how it works. Given the chronic challenges identified in Leadership New England, it is our responsibility to use this rare opportunity to generate key shifts in the sector. Funders, capacity builders and nonprofits themselves have a responsibility for reinforcing the sector’s resiliency while helping it move collectively from mere survival and stabilization to more impact – from “good to great.”[3]  This means investing in nonprofits and leaders so that they have what is needed to meet their missions and thrive.

About Our Guest Author

Hez_NortonHez G. Norton is the Director of Partnerships and Leadership Initiatives at Third Sector New England in Boston, Mass and runs Courage in Leading, a national program that supports leaders preparing for transition. TSNE’s new report, Leadership New England, includes information from more than 1,200 survey respondents in the six New England states. The report and interactive website is available online at

More On This

Browse more pages and posts that are part of our Mission Driven Leadershift initiative.

[1] Next Shift: Beyond the Nonprofit Leadership Crisis” by Frances Kunreuther and Patrick Covington (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2007)
[2] In “Under-Investing in Social Sector Leadership” by Laura Callanan, February 2014, referencing Foundation Center data from 1992-2011.
[3] Jim Collins has written extensively on good-to-great concepts in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors, in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Other’s Don’t (2001) and in Good to Great in the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great (2005)

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