New Bridgespan Group Study on Nonprofit Founder Transitions Counters Conventional Wisdom that “Clean Break” Is Best, Demonstrates Benefits of Maintaining Role for Founder

02/15/2018 |


Research finds that nearly half of all founders who step down continue to bring their knowledge, relationships, and passion to bear for the organizations they started
BOSTON, February 15, 2018—Is a clean break really the best way to ensure a successful nonprofit founder succession? While conventional wisdom suggests that it is, new research from The Bridgespan Group finds that the answer is often no.
Making Founder Successions Work,” published today in Stanford Social Innovation Review, details key findings from Bridgespan’s in-depth, quantitative study of nonprofit founder transitions, among them:
  • More nonprofit boards work out a continuing role for founders (45 percent) than pursue an amicable clean break (31 percent);
  • Transitions that paired a founder and successor from inside the organization proved to be the most successful of all transition models;
  • Involuntary breaks (24 percent), where founders are ousted by the board, tend to be the least successful; and,
  • Transition work is challenging and requires preparation, including investing in internal talent development, talking about succession planning, establishing a transition fund, and shoring up board oversight.
According to Jari Tuomala, Bridgespan partner and coauthor of the study, “Bridgespan’s research indicates that an extended founder role, when done right, can be the best path to maintain funder, board, and staff loyalty, while allowing the new leader to benefit from the founder’s capabilities and knowledge. Everyone wins, including the organizations and most importantly, their beneficiaries.” He cited the Communities in Schools (CIS) transition from founder Bill Milliken to the then in-house executive vice president of field operations Dan Cardinali (now at Independent Sector) as an example of such a transition.
Coauthor Donald Yeh, a Bridgespan manager, noted that interviewees mentioned a number of long-standing practices to manage leadership transitions. Among them: start early in planning for transition, invest in developing internal successors, establish frequent interaction between successors and board chairs, and maintain active board engagement in the process. 
In addition, Yeh said the research identified five recommendations that more directly address the practical aspects of managing an ongoing role for a founder. “These recommendations apply to any organization that seeks to extend the founder’s stay,” said Yeh. They are:
  • Limit the founder’s new role to specific areas of interest and capability;
  • Engage in regular coaching to help navigate operational and emotional aspects of the transition;
  • Anticipate conflict and agree to a process to mitigate it;
  • Transition board, funder, and staff loyalty in logical order—they need to be shepherded to new leadership; and,
  • Create initial separation (founder should have low profile) to allow the successor to settle in, particularly if the founder’s new role is substantial or long term.
“Every year," said Tuomala, “thousands of nonprofit boards face the daunting task of hiring a successor to replace the seemingly irreplaceable, long-serving, beloved founder, and the transition is fraught with anxiety. Our aim in conducting and sharing this study is to help nonprofits and their boards plan for these transitions and lay the foundation for stronger organizations better able to serve their beneficiaries.”
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