A Reading List on Nonprofit Executive Transition
Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series—Vol. III
Sep 28, 2022

By: Jamie Millard

As Pollen continues through our Executive Director leadership transition (read about that here), every other week we will share more about our process, reflections, takeaways, and updates. “Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series” will candidly share how we’ve approached our process of executive leadership transition — a process that centers transparency, prevents harm, and is rooted in racial equity.

In this installment of Bloom, we’re sharing some of our favorite and most useful leadership transition resources that informed, shaped, and anchored our own discovery for our journey. If you have any favorite resources of your own, we hope you’ll send them our way so we can add to our growing internal collection. TLDR; take me to the reading list.

Always Be Learning

When you have the gift of planning and foresight for a leadership transition (which is not always the case), it gives you the opportunity to weave in an extra layer of intentionality. Pollen has been preparing for a leadership transition for over two years. One way we used this gift of time was to intentionally immerse ourselves in learning, discussing, and listening.

At our core, we are story-lovers and connectors, so bringing that same methodology to our leadership transition was natural…and it began with research.

We had to make our own textbook. No one resource, no single training hit all the points we were looking to address in our transition. This included things like:

  • Designing a collaborative decision-making process between staff and board (not the typical board-led, some-staff-input-provided model)
  • Nurturing and centering current staff throughout the process
  • Embedding racial equity at every step, especially given the fact that Pollen would most likely be transitioning from a white, founding executive director to a leader of color
  • Ensuring every decision was made with the ultimate goal of setting up the next executive director for maximum success

We collected stories from peers about their leadership transitions. We read thought leadership articles that centered racial equity and addressed harmful power dynamics that play out in these kinds of transitions. We attended webinars and consumed research and reports. We held lots of informal conversations and discussions, all guided by this organic education, which set us on a path to intentionally design our own process.



The Power of Personal Stories

Even though the focus of this article is to share our list of reading and education resources about leadership transition, it’s important to note that perhaps the most valuable form of education that shaped Pollen’s intentionality in our process came from listening to the firsthand experiences of those in the Pollen network.

“Can you share your story about how you navigated this?”
We had coffee meetings and zooms with executive directors who had recently gone through leadership transitions. We talked with other board chairs who oversaw the process through recent transitions. We connected with staff members who had experienced executive director transitions at their organizations.

  • Side Bar: Hearing from staff (not just from executive directors) was where we heard some of the most valuable insights. Insights like:
    • Staff want to be more included. They have so much expertise to offer and networks to engage. And a warning, when staff are not effectively engaged, it can lead to deeper problems for the incoming leader.
    • Staff are scared and afraid during leadership transitions. The uncertainty for their own jobs and future is at a high. Recognize and acknowledge those feelings.
    • Leaders are everywhere. Leadership is thriving in all sorts of nooks and crannies in an organization. Don’t assume that only the leadership team should be part of the transition. Instead this can be an opportunity to pause and look for leadership throughout the organization. Even asking the simple question to all staff : “Who is interested in being part of the working group to guide our organization through leadership transition?” will show you valuable information.
    • Change takes capacity. Working, leading, navigating through change takes capacity. How can an organization lessen workload, increase time off, and/or hire more staff during times of transition?

And of course we called up Lars Leafblad, Pollen’s founder, who has seen almost every kind of leadership transition you can imagine as co-founder and partner for the executive search firm Ballinger | Leafblad. You could say leadership transition curiosity is in our DNA. We even called up Jeanne Bell, who is a national leading voice for emergent leadership strategies for the social sector, to share our early thinking.

One key learning from all of these conversations and stories is that every leadership transition is unique to that organization, to that set of humans. And at the center of every process was how people felt — and were treated — throughout the leadership transition.





A Reading List on Nonprofit Executive Transition 

Below you’ll find some of Pollen’s favorite and most useful resources regarding nonprofit leadership transitions. One way our team used these resources was to prompt discussion, create shared language, and sharpen our own opinions. We have so much gratitude to all of the authors and researchers behind these resources.

And again, this isn’t our comprehensive list — we’re actually constantly still adding, so please send any of your own favorite resources our way. Settle in, grab your favorite beverage, and enjoy some light reading 🤣!

A Great Place to Start

These articles and resources are a great place to start in shaping a new way to imagine leadership transitions.

What Does an Equitable Executive Leadership Transition Look Like? By Cyndi Suarez

  • A key, introductory primer on the history of current succession planning practices, the challenges behind defaulting to “best practice” as policy, and preview of a paradigm shift thriving in movement-oriented spaces that is fine-tuned to address racial equity issues: It’s called Pathway Planning.

What It Takes to Manage Leadership Change in the Nonprofit Sector by Miecha Forbes

  • “In the past, the process was commonly referred to “succession planning.” However, that term often refers to identifying a successor for a specific leader and, in our view, has outgrown its usefulness. It’s more helpful, instead, to think about the work of preparing for and managing leadership change as “intentional pathway planning,” a more expansive term that serves as a reminder that leadership change involves much more than thinking about a single role or person; it’s a holistic approach and lens that should be applied to every step of the hiring and onboarding process.”

Webinar: Succession Planning Is Outdated: A New Approach to Managing Leadership Transition by NPQ (featuring Miecha Forbes)

  • “The term ‘succession planning’ itself is outdated because it describes narrowly the process of identifying a successor for a specific leader.  She proposes that we think of the work of preparing for and managing leadership change as “intentional pathway planning” instead. This more expansive term serves as a reminder that navigating leadership change is more than thinking about a single role or person. It’s a holistic approach that should be applied to every step of hiring and growing effective leaders.”

Into the Fire: Lessons from Movement Conflicts by Ingrid Benedict, Weyam Ghadbianand, and Jovida Ross

  • “To build the world we want takes practice. Our everyday actions shape and grow culture, which ultimately shapes systems. By allowing ourselves to imagine what we really want, creating structures that serve that vision, and doing our best to repair the harm we inevitably cause along the way—we grapple, feel, stumble, fall, and get up and try again, transitioning our world into the one we want.”’

Nonprofit Leadership at a Crossroads by Mistinguette Smith

  • “If we acknowledge that we have come to a crossroads about the kind of leadership needed to take our sector forward, we can lessen our anxiety about departing from “the way we’ve always done things.” We will have space to recognize and celebrate the ways rising leaders of color are bringing forward the very insights and inclusive practices that we have been struggling toward. This pivotal junction for the field invites us to turn away from our habitual path of exclusion, a path that excludes both the contributions of seasoned elders and well-prepared younger leaders from the roles that await them.”

Will We Get There Hire By Hire: Reflections on Executive Leadership and Transition over 15 Years by Jeanne Bell, Paola Cubías, and Byron Johnson 

  • “The oft touted organizational agility—the capacity to make constant sense of what’s important and adjust programming, staffing, and financing accordingly—is fostered by distributed leadership wherein more people than a management team are doing the sense making. This too has been part of the leadership discourse for many years now. And yet, too few of us have actually deconstructed our top-down management to empower the diverse sense makers across our staff, board, and constituency. As such we are extremely vulnerable to the once visionary executive who couldn’t sense the shifting sands fast enough.”

Race to Lead

The Race to Lead initiative is a whole series of critical learning and insights from the Building Movement Project that is highlighting data, stories, and solutions around the systemic biases and barriers that limit opportunity, access and advancement for people of color who aspire to executive leadership roles in the nonprofit sector. Race to Lead favorites:

Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs: A Race to Lead Report on Nonprofit Executives of Color

  • “This report demonstrates that the proverbial glass cliff is an all-too-common reality for leaders of color in the nonprofit sector. Ascending to an executive position does not end a leader’s struggles with racism, and sometimes increases those challenges. In particular, Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs shines a spotlight on: 
      • The racialized barriers that leaders of color overcome to attain their executive positions. 
      • The persisting challenges experienced by people of color who hold executive leadership positions. 
      • The heightened struggles faced by leaders of identity-based organizations. The added burdens placed on leaders of color who follow a white executive director or chief executive officer. 
      • The potential next wave of executive leaders transitioning out of their positions.”
  • Webinar Recap for Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs
    • “Following a presentation of the data and findings, Sean turned to the panelists to hear their reactions to the report and insights on how to live into one’s values while leading, navigate imposter syndrome, build a strong nonprofit board, and more.”
      • Recommendation: Encourage your board and team to read the report and watch this webinar and then discuss these five key findings and how they might to relate to your organization’s own leadership transition: 
        • Leaders of color need support, not more training.
        • Leaders of color take on added burdens, without additional compensation.
        • Leaders of identity-based organizations face distinct demands.
        • Unique challenges come with taking over leadership from white leaders.
        • Too few white leaders factor race equity into their succession plans.

Race to Lead Revisited: Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap (2020)

  • “The data and analysis presented here offer insight on how to support organizations that embrace racial equity internally as they work toward a society in which all people have equal voice, opportunity, and power.”
  • “The data demonstrates that nonprofit organizations are defined by a pervasive and systemic white advantage, a term used in this report to describe the concrete ways that structure and power in nonprofit organizations reinforce the benefits of whiteness. This is particularly evident when comparing organizations run by white people and organizations led by people of color.” 

Making (Or Taking) Space: Initial Themes on Nonprofit Transitions from White to BIPOC Leaders 

The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation (RSCF) has observed that many organizations are eager to transition from white leaders to leaders of color, but that they often do not have the experience, expertise, commitment, or supports in place to fully embrace new leadership and make these transitions successful or joyful. Key findings:

  • Most exiting white leaders and/or boards of directors were intentionally recruiting a leader of color, and it was common that this decision coincided with internal issues related to race/racism.
  • The entering BIPOC leaders were, in almost every case, familiar with the organization and understood that there were internal problems, though the extent was not always clear. 
  • The new leaders of color were prepared for the (implicit or explicit) expectation they would both run the organization and address internal equity issues, but they often faced other unexpected problems including funding challenges. 
  • Several entering leaders of color noted the responsibility they had for supporting/ protecting exiting white leaders.

Nonprofit Executives and the Racial Leadership Gap: A Race to Lead Brief (2017)

  • “The data shows that people of color in executive positions report higher rates of common challenges and frustrations than white EDs/ CEOs.”
  • “Organizational financial sustainability is a particularly acute burden for EDs/CEOs of color.” 


Boards, This Is For You (and Everyone Else, Too)

While all of these articles are great (necessary) readings and discussions for a board of directors, these specifically might provide good insight to the unique role a board member holds during leadership transitions. 

Failure Is Not an Option: How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Leaders of Color by Idalia Fernandez, Monisha Kapilaand, and Angela Romans

  • “In this moment of profound challenge and opportunity, keeping equity at the center is critical. Supporting leaders of color is a fundamental step in this process. Here are a few ways nonprofit boards and their organizations can build structures and practices to attract, hire, and retain successful CEOs and other C-suite leaders of color.”
    • Assess your leadership context
    • Build in and support a professional-and-relationship development plan
    • Create a container for risk-taking
    • Partner on racial equity

The Nonprofit Board’s Role in Onboarding and Supporting a New CEO

  • “The number one responsibility of any board—for-profit or nonprofit—is effective management of the senior executive, especially a new one. Yet, nonprofit leaders often report to Bridgespan that their boards fall short of that goal. Here are five ways nonprofit boards can more effectively onboard and support their new CEOs.”
    • Lay the groundwork for the new leader
    • Collectively set the new leadership agenda
    • Get clear on roles
    • Go slow in orientation to go fast on the job
    • Invest in the new leader


Future, Current, and Past Executive Directors/CEOs, This Is For You (and Everyone Else, Too)

Learning from and with leaders who have been through a top executive transition reveals a bit more of the nuance behind the loss and hope underscoring these periods of organizational transformation, which at the core, are also periods of human transformation.

A Note to Say Farewell and Thank You by Maria De La Cruz

  • “I have been reflecting on my path to Headwaters and my work over the past eight years. I am filled with mixed emotions of joy, sadness, and gratitude. So, as I transition out of my role as President, I want to share some of my reflections and lessons learned with you—friends, colleagues, and supporters who make up this beloved community.”
    • Peer mentorship matters
    • The role of President is a lonely one—support, boundaries, and rest are essential
    • Leadership weighs heavy on women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people
    • Leadership is not about being the boss
    • Changing the world is heart work
    • Strong community builds strong leaders and organizations

Transitioning Leadership with Amana: A Conversation with Nausheena & Malika

A beautiful conversation between a founder and the next executive director that addresses everything from fear to strategy. A few of the great questions asked throughout the conversation: 

  • “Part of the purpose of having this conversation is acknowledging that a leadership transition is an emotional process for everyone involved. What are some of the emotions that have come up over the course of this transition?”
  • “You talked earlier about the fear of being erased. Could you share how you’ve dealt with that fear and how you’ve been able to detach from the organization in a healthy way?”
  • “How are you building up confidence in your successor and making sure that she feels ready to come in and lead the charge?”
  • “Another question that our team has received is: why have a longer period of time where you two overlapped and worked together? How have you transitioned decision-making during that time?”
  • “Why do you think our community is sometimes reluctant to talk about these transitions? Do you think we should open up more spaces to talk about what a leadership transition means for those involved?”

RVC is in the middle of a leadership transition AND an organizational transition by Ananda Valenzuela

  • “At RVC, we’re tired of traditional top-down models of running organizations, in which the Executive Director makes all the decisions. Vu and I, as Executive Director and Managing Director, had already been trying to break open the impossible ED job, and overturn traditional decision-making. So how do we create a structure that supports all of us as leaders, and still gets the work done? Instead of hiring a new Executive Director and calling it a day. We’ve got a few reasons for taking this transition seriously:
    • Recommitting to both shared leadership and distributed leadership
    • Striving towards greater equity and liberation
    • Knocking down the nonprofit industrial complex
    • Moving beyond the “hierarchical or flat” dichotomy of org structures

Navigating Succession: Four Exiting CEO Mindsets by Aparna Anand Joshi, Donald C. Hambrickand, and Jiyeon Kang

This is relatively wonky, but a good way to think about how the exiting executive director’s mindset inherently informs an organization’s approach. 

  • “What determines a company’s readiness for navigating a CEO transition? Our proposed answer builds upon prior research on CEO succession, viewed through a novel theoretical lens based on generativity theory and the mindset of the exiting CEO.”
  • “Despite calls for greater board involvement in succession planning, the motivations and behaviors of incumbent CEOs continue to greatly influence leadership transitions in public corporations. Our framework highlights that a CEO’s generativity mindset is manifested years before succession is imminent, greatly shaping the contours of the eventual transition. During the main period of a CEO’s tenure, his or her generativity mindset propels various behaviors, including efforts to assess and develop top management team members for potential advancement, as well as the degree to which the CEO designs management team processes to encourage understanding of firm-wide issues and actors.”

We’re still adding to these resources, so please send any of your own favorite leadership transition articles our way!


What’s up next in “Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series

Stay tuned for our next installment on October 12.


Posted by Pollen Midwest on Sep 28, 2022
additional info

Other Opportunities You May Be Interested In

Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series—Vol. VII
Posted By Pollen Midwest
Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series—Vol. VI
Posted By Pollen Midwest
Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series—Vol. V
Posted By Pollen Midwest