OPINION: Are nonprofits ready for their leaders to quit?

A good nonprofit leader is a modern-day superhero — able to unflinchingly face the most critical community challenges, innovate, prove effectiveness, build consensus among vastly different stakeholders, be a good steward, plan ahead, be right.

And do it with less money, less time, less staff, less overhead, less investment and less margin for R&D than any for-profit business in metropolis.

If “nonprofit” is a misnomer for a sector that does so much more than just “not profit”, then CEO is also a misnomer for a position that is less like their large corporation counterparts and more like an entrepreneur building a huge vision that pleases and serves everybody.

If this was an easy job, we would have solved our problems already. But according to a recent survey conducted by Greenlights, a training provider for area nonprofits, 81 percent of the nonprofits surveyed report an increased demand for services.

Now comes the scary part: Those valuable, seasoned nonprofit executive directors are considering leaving.

A whopping 67 percent of nonprofit executive directors or CEO’s reported they anticipated leaving their role in 5 years, according to “Daring to Lead,” a national study conducted in 2011.

This is a natural progression, of course, as Baby Boomers look to what is next for them. But the question of what’s next for organizations is much more troubling.

For many, the recession heightened instability. Downsizing, ending services, and minimizing impact have effectively gutted management staff, leaving few internal candidates for open leadership positions. Demographics are not in favor of smooth transitions either. And no one is talking about it.

In that same study, only 19 percent of organizations reported having a documented succession plan.

In a field where leaders are notoriously underpaid, overworked, and passionately committed, we need more than just a checklist. Successful transitions will take into account the whole leader, creating space for staff and volunteers to come to terms with change and a type of mourning process, making way for both an ending and a beginning. Overlooking this process can be a huge mistake. Successful navigation means accounting for both the logistical and the emotional.

Here are four things to get started:

1. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and have the tough conversation.

2. Honestly assess your readiness for transition. Do you have a strategic plan that truly guides the work? Do you have a 4-6 month minimum reserve? Do you have internal leadership candidates that are intentionally developing? What is your emergency succession plan?What is each person’s role? What do you need from future leadership, for today and to reach your vision? Who needs to be included? What are potential conflicts?

3. Provide executive coaching for the CEO, safe space to figure out what’s next and what’s best.

4. Celebrate the leadership that got you this far.

Here’s the key: It’s not about quitting/dying/leaving, rather it’s about gratitude and legacy. We are, in part, the community that we are because of the hard work of nonprofits. We will be a stronger, better community because of the work we have yet to do. Acting now will create the legacy your cause deserves.

Sally.HiRes.04Sally Blue is an Austin-based nonprofit consultant focused on thoughtful innovation and excellent transitions. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Emory University, she’s the president-elect for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Austin Chapter.