Handled Properly, Leadership Transitions Can Energize, Not Derail, Campaigns

  • Published November 30, 2022
  • / By Marts&Lundy

A May 2022 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy points to a turnover trend among nonprofit leaders that is seemingly fueled by the pandemic and is perhaps unlike anything the industry has ever experienced. When you consider that the average length of campaigns continues to increase, as does their frequency, it is no surprise that many institutions will experience a major leadership transition during a campaign.

A change at the top brings new energy and new ideas, which can be exciting to you and your donors. It can also be a bit destabilizing, as everything you’re doing gets new scrutiny. If the prior leader was much loved, you may see your team experience some grieving. If the departure wasn’t by choice, or came out of a crisis or scandal, there may be a lot of relationships that need repairing. How do you get through all of this without your campaign going off track?

Our firm has worked with many institutions that have faced these transitions, and we can state quite confidently that given the right preparation, the right focus, and the right activity, campaigns can succeed and, with the energy of new leadership, can even exceed goals.

Getting Organized

As soon as you hear that a transition will be happening, get to work. Assess how you might engage your departing leader in a farewell tour if it’s a long transition, or a targeted wrap up conversation with key donors if it’s a short one. At the same time, start preparing for the new leader to arrive. In some cases, this may be months or years away, but it’s never too soon to start brainstorming how you will use the excitement the new leader’s arrival will bring. We recommend developing a plan that includes what you want the new leader to do at key junctures:

  • immediately upon announcement of the placement
  • during the weeks preceding their arrival
  • the first two weeks on board
  • intervals of 30, 60, and 90 days on board

Categorizing your list of ideas will help you start a transition plan document that you refine as you go. Your new leader will appreciate and remember that you laid this out for them in a manageable way.

Communicating with Donors

Successful organizations develop a communication plan for donors and volunteers at all levels with the purpose of sustaining confidence, keeping them in the inner circle, and assuring them that the institution is advancing its mission and the priorities they feel passionate about.

  • Develop a plan to handle your transitioning leader’s portfolio and any top gifts or significant relationships with the outgoing President/CEO.
  • It is vital that key donors hear from the Board chair about the issues at hand and the plan to address the situation. 
  • A steady hand at interim is good for stabilizing the operations, but not of much use to the campaign. Avoid getting any interim too deeply engaged with donors. Put forth the Campaign Chair as the high-profile leader who can focus messaging on the campaign objectives.
  • There is also a role here for the senior fundraiser to provide monthly updates (either in the form of a call or update memorandum) on the search process—and soliciting advice on activities and messaging.
  • Ensure there is a single source of information and that staff direct all questions and concerns to that source. 
  • Ensure all staff are provided with regular briefings and have relevant facts at hand. Research we have done shows that what employees say is a primary driver of community perception.

Campaign Timelines

The timing and duration of a campaign may need to shift due to a leadership transition but give yourself some time to figure that out. Keep your foot on the gas—that will give you even more opportunities to connect with donors and keep them in the loop.

  • Campaign timelines may need to be extended following the transition due to a slowdown in gifts and pledges during the transition year(s).
  • For those campaigns in the quiet phase, it may be necessary to make the strategic decision to delay the public launch to give the new leader time to make the campaign their own, and to give you more time to reach your go-public threshold—typically 65%-70% of the campaign goal.

Campaign Priorities and Major Gifts

A new leader may reframe priorities, particularly if a campaign is in its earliest stages. While a leader may provide a new vision, there are others in your organization who will be doing the actual work of implementing donor-funded priorities.

  • For donors who may want to pause their campaign gift decision during the leadership transition, ensure they meet the principal players who will carry out the project.
  • For some donors you will just have to wait until they are ready. Campaigns can span leadership change because of their multi-year reality, and we are seeing leadership gifts as much at the end of campaigns as at the beginning.
  • If there are outstanding issues that require the incoming leader to handle, consider having the donor confirm a “conditional pledge” until the new leader is in place and those concerns can be addressed.
  • Above all, listen to your donors and give them ample opportunities to share their thoughts and feelings. Don’t make their decisions for them by avoiding conversations about their gifts. Show them that you are their partner in moving through this period.

Transitions are a chance to engage new partners in philanthropy and reinvigorate your constituency. If you seize this opportunity, you will come through the transition with your program stronger than ever.

With special thanks to Senior Consultant & Managing Principal Penelepe Hunt, Of Counsel Nicholas Offord, and retired Senior Consultant & Principal Tom Thomsen for their contributions to this piece.