Part 1: Why great nonprofit leaders leave

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Just ahead of the pandemic, in 2019, 51% of nonprofit leaders said they were planning to retire. The sector press has been forecasting a leadership transition tsunami for some time as baby boomers step away from long-tenured leadership positions. But there’s more to the story than just age.

Two main reasons for the transition tsunami: 

  • One of the biggest reasons executives leave is due to the board of directors.
  • The second reason for the mass exodus of leaders is more intrinsic: many are rethinking their relationship with work.

In this two-part series, we’ll first dig into the relationship between the CEO and the board of directors—both culturally and structurally. Next month, we’ll hold a mirror up to burnout in the nonprofit sector and share strategies on how to help your leaders (or yourself) navigate from exhaustion to thriving.

To seed your thinking, consider three things: 

  • The impact you make as a leader
  • The effect others have on you and vice versa
  • The effect of the circumstance or situation you’re currently facing

Sometimes, we problem-solve at the wrong level making matters worse.

Let’s start with the situation.

Without judgment or blame, ask yourself:

What are the relevant factors leading to a leader (or you) feeling frustrated and ready to step away because of how the board is (or is not) functioning? 

Blameless discernment can help generate incisive ideas and solutions, as well as get a better handle on what’s actually going on culturally and structurally that is causing the situation. In the SSIR article, Purpose Driven Board Leadership, Anne Wallestad, invites board members and executives to reimagine traditional practices. I love how she describes governance as less a structure or set of technical practices and more a way of being and thinking.

So, what should a board be thinking about when it comes to nurturing and supporting CEOs?

  1. Tune into the telltale signs of burnout.
  2. Conduct a “stay” interview—as compared to an exit interview. Understand the CEO’s motivation and goals beyond just managing the company’s day-to-day.
  3. Invest in professional development and coaching, including planning for a sabbatical at some regular interval; this will require the CEO to take responsibility for their health and well-being and get comfortable with loosening the reins of control. It also helps nurture, strengthen, and elevate internal talent.
  4. Succession plan regularly. To replace an executive costs 213% of their salary even with a succession plan in place. This is a critical step for any board and should be overlooked only at your peril. (Dig deeper into succession planning here.)
  5. Encourage the CEO to build the leadership team – hiring from within is easier and often better.
Remember, friends, blameless discernment is key in diagnosing the situation objectively and moving your organization into a position to thrive. Nobody said this would be easy—so lean into that courageous spirit of yours and meet me back here next month to dig into the topic of nonprofit leader burnout and handy tips that can serve as powerful antidotes!


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Hey there, I'm Kimberley

Welcome! I believe our social sector organizations are at the forefront of making here better. With more than 33 years of diversified fundraising and nonprofit experience, I partner with courageous organizations committed to building clarity and confidence. Let’s connect and chart your nonprofit’s path to thriving. 

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