Inspiring leaders play a pivotal role in driving non-profit organisations, but what happens when those figureheads have to move on? Denise Charlton has used her own extensive experience, plus interviews with other activists, to publish a guide on how to handle change at the top.

OVER the past 25 years, I have experience exiting two non-profit organisations as CEO, after 10 years. On both occasions, I was passionate about the organisations and the work they did. I very much saw my role as ensuring the organisation was ready for the transition and could benefit positively from the changing leadership.  I have also had the privilege of being a Board member of a number of non- profit organisations, that had varied experiences of leadership change and succession.  Additionally, in my coaching practice, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of exiting founders/executives, incoming CEOs and Boards, also managing leadership transition.  I have now produced a guide, supported by Social Change Initiative, which is developed from those experiences and from research conducted with over 20 non-profit organisations.

Executive transitions and leadership succession can be difficult for all organisations, with specific challenges for non-profits. Executive transition can present challenges on all levels, for employees, board members, and stakeholders. Non-profit organisations manage leadership transition and succession planning in varying ways. Many non-profit organisations restrict the focus to the executive change, only seeing it as a recruitment process, often with negative consequences. Poorly managed transitions incur high costs to organisations and communities. Failure to plan for succession can result in poor choice of leader. Transition failure can also levy a cost on the company’s reputation externally in the eyes of key stakeholders and internally in ways that affect employee motivation.

However, if managed effectively and actively, leadership transition also offers an opportunity for organisations. Organisations benefit when the process includes the implementation of a wider strategy including organisational assessment, the involvement of key stakeholders, talent development, a professional executive search and a plan for incoming executives

Leadership transition requires significant additional time and skills, on top of ordinary duties for boards of organisations, outgoing and incoming executive and staff teams. To support organisations, we have developed the guide on succession planning and leadership transition.  It is informed by the latest literature and theory and the practical experience of 20 non-profit organisations working in the area of social change. It outlines the experience of those organisations and the lessons learnt.

Denise Charlton

Some of those participating managed the process successfully and shared the contributing factors. Others had more challenges and faced difficulties that resulted in a failed transition(s) and for some this meant closure. They reflect on what contributed to the failure and suggest strategies and activities that might have helped them avoid some of the challenges. The discussions cover areas such as strategic planning; the importance of including key stakeholders, development & investment in leadership, key roles, responsibilities & tasks, the role of communications and the use of values in the process.

You can read the full report, Leadership Transition and Succession: A Toolkit for Social Change Activists and Non-profit organisations by clicking here.

  • Denise Charlton is an experienced social justice and social change activist working on LGBTI rights, gender equality, violence against women and migration.