Trust in Practice: Shifting Our Stance on Leadership Transitions

Trust in Practice: Shifting Our Stance on Leadership Transitions

July 30, 2021

By Holly Bartling
Published on Trust-based Philanthropy Project Blog

I have come to recognize a certain kind of email. It is usually a simple note, asking for fifteen minutes of my time. This note is often the first public signal that an executive director is stepping down.

Last year, our team at General Service Foundation (GSF) received so many of these emails—and fielded so many follow up calls announcing leadership transitions—that we decided to track them. What we found surprised us: 47% of our grantees have gone through an executive director transition in the past three years.

Our sense is that we are only at the beginning of this wave of transitions. We are on the cusp of a generational shift in our sector as long-time leaders step down, and a new generation of activists, including many Black, Indigenous and people of color leaders, are stepping into executive director positions. Given what is on the horizon, we now have an important opportunity to question our default habits in the sector and shift our stance around leadership transitions.

For a sector dedicated to resourcing change, philanthropy seems to be deeply resistant to leadership changes at the organizations we fund and the movements we support. In part, this is because so much of our mental model ties back to the financial sector, where a change in leadership translates into increased risk. As a sector, when we see risk, our default is to pull back. In reality, holding back support and waiting for a new leader to prove themselves can create harm and, paradoxically, increases the risk that the transition won’t be a smooth one.

Nonprofit leadership changes offer an opportunity for renewal and for new vision. As funders, we have the opportunity to help create the conditions needed for this next generation of leaders to thrive. When we normalize transitions as part of healthy organizational change, trust incoming leaders, and provide support, we give a clear runway to the incoming executive director to realize their full vision.

Concretely, here are two practices that we have found to be critical in supporting successful leadership transitions:

  • Offer dedicated resources to support transitions. In addition to ongoing general support, funders can provide additional resources for executive director transitions. At the General Service Foundation, we offer dedicated support to our grantees to ensure they have the funds to meet the increased needs that come with transitions.

  • Provide support beyond the grant. Executive director transitions are resource intensive, and it is often easier to meet grantee needs by coming together as a group to collectively fund transitions. At GSF, we have convened joint funder calls to ensure that our grantees can raise their transition budget with ease. These calls have helped to shore up support for the organization that goes far beyond the grant.

When funders start from a place of trust and offer both resources and support to the incoming leader, it is easier for that leader to be honest about how the transition is going and ask for what they need. When new leaders feel that their funders have their backs, they are also freer to pursue their boldest visions.

Funders have made dramatic changes to their practices in the past year. With more executive director transitions on the horizon, we have an important opportunity to shed the ingrained sector-wide habit of “wait and see” philanthropy. Let’s meet this moment by deepening our practices around trust and equity, and centering the visionary activists who are stepping into leadership.

Link to article on Trust-based Philanthropy Project Blog: