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11 Elements of a Foundation Executive Transition Plan
Kris Putnam-Walkerly -- Global Philanthropy Expert Kris Putnam-Walkerly -- Global Philanthropy Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Cleveland, OH
Thursday, August 17, 2023


Executive transitions are a natural part of any organization’s lifecycle, but they don’t have to spur panic or derail progress. With some thoughtful preparation and the right people involved, foundations can develop simplified succession plans to ensure smooth leadership changes.

Even better, you can leverage foundation executive transition planning to optimize operations, strengthen the organization, and magnify your impact. With the right mindset and planning, executive transition planning is your secret superpower!

Here are 11 key elements you can incorporate into your foundation’s executive transition plan:

1. Envision Your Ideal Future State

Before you do anything else, paint a vivid picture of your foundation’s ideal future, post-transition. What would the foundation look like if the executive transition is executed perfectly? How will it feel if your new CEO hits the ground running and you couldn’t be more pleased with the results? What would need to be different about your foundation to achieve that? Asking these questions and others grounds the succession plan in shared aspirations, rather than limiting your plan to transactional transition activities.

2. Get Your House in Order

Seize this transition moment to get your house in order. Are there inefficiencies to fix or processes to streamline before the next CEO starts? Is there a toxic board member or underperforming employee who needs to be tactfully exited? I always advise funders to seize executive transitions as opportunities to strengthen their foundation. In fact, I view this as your superpower! This ensures your organization is more appealing to attract top talent. It also eases the transition when the new CEO is not immediately burdened by bureaucratic processes and frustrating headwinds.

For example, one of my private foundation clients recognized that too much of the current CEO’s time was spent on lower-level administrative tasks and managing a complex grant application process. They decided to delegate those tasks to other staff and outsource the application management to an intermediary organization. This freed up the CEO’s time to focus on strategy implementation and succession planning. It also made the job more appealing to prospective candidates. You want to present your best organizational face to attract talented leadership.

3. Strengthen Governance

Assess trustee readiness to engage deeply in the transition process. Clarify specific board member roles in developing and implementing your foundation’s executive transition plan. Establish board term limits if they don’t currently exist. Craft onboarding materials to orient new trustees during this period of change.

This is also a great time to review bylaws and update them if needed. Often, they contain outdated provisions that no longer make sense. For example, one family foundation client realized that their now-deceased donor had named specific individuals to serve as successor board members and wrote them into the by-laws. Those individuals were now in their 80s and 90s and were no longer connected to the family or interested in board service! The foundation updated its by-laws to ensure the new executive director wasn’t hamstrung by impossible governance expectations.

4. Optimize Staffing

Determine if your organizational chart changes make sense, especially regarding the CEO’s current duties. Can existing or new staff take on some of their work to free up strategic time for the next leader? You may also want to use this transition to thoughtfully exit underperforming team members and empower the new CEO to build their own team over time. Or you might need to hire for a critical role to ensure stability during the transition.

For example, when one foundation’s founding executive director retired after 25 years, they took the opportunity to reorganize staff around their new strategic plan. This allowed the incoming leader to hit the ground running rather than inherit dated staff configurations.

5. Stay Focused on Your North Star

While foundation executive transition planning is critical, stay centered on implementing your current strategic plan amidst the activity. Adjust timelines and priorities as needed but avoid losing momentum. Hiring the right new executive is likely priority #1 right now. But in the meantime, don’t put everything else on hold.

6. Recruit and Hire with Intention

Decide how you want to approach recruitment and hiring. Avoid the tendency to make assumptions based on what your colleagues are doing. Do you need a full-service search firm? Or can you identify enough potential candidates in your organization and networks and manage the process yourself? Take time to develop a compelling job description and recruitment strategy to draw your ideal candidates. Develop your process and timeline for interviews, selection, and making an offer.

7. Position Your New Leader for Success

Create a detailed onboarding plan to support the new ED on day one and beyond. Determine if and how the outgoing executive director might be available to train and support the incoming executive director. Assign them a mentor on the board and an executive coach to provide guidance during this transition time. Avoid burdening them with major events and deliverables before they have their bearings.

For example, one foundation board decided to retain the outgoing executive director as a consultant to train her replacement, make key introductions, and help with special projects. They retained me to advise them both, separately and together, for the first six months to help the new leader navigate his role, ensure a healthy transition, and prevent any role confusion.

8. Transfer Institutional Knowledge

There is much information and knowledge to convey to a new CEO. Take time to assess what knowledge should be transferred, how that will happen, and what you can do in advance to simplify this process. This might include cleaning up databases, developing procedures manuals, clarifying calendars, ensuring access to files, and documenting organizational history. You will also want to make introductions to key partners, grantees, and vendors.

9. Communicate Proactively

Effective communication is a vital aspect of foundation executive transition planning, requiring thoughtful consideration even before the job announcement is made. It involves identifying all stakeholders, such as board members, staff, grantees, partners, field leaders, colleague foundations, community members, local media, and others who might have an interest in the transition.

The process must be tailored to ensure that different categories of people are notified in ways that suit their relationship with the organization, ranging from emails to personal phone calls or even in-person meetings. Timing is crucial, with some stakeholders needing to be informed before the job announcement is released or the new hire’s press release is issued.

Additionally, the “where” and “how” of communication must be considered, whether via email, scheduled meetings, or opportune gatherings like conferences where the new CEO can meet multiple key people. This multifaceted approach to communication ensures transparency, builds trust and helps foster new relationships, all of which contribute to a smooth and successful transition.

10. Maintain Legal and Fiscal Compliance

Your foundation’s executive transition might not go as smoothly as you hope. The last thing you want to do is drop the ball when it comes to legal compliance, financial management, or asset management. Keep assets well-managed, bills paid, taxes filed, and compliance ensured during the leadership change.

11. “Abducted by Aliens” Contingency Plan

While it may sound humorous, having a contingency plan for unanticipated scenarios such as your CEO being hit by the proverbial bus or being unexpectedly terminated is wise. This might include identifying in advance who would step in as interim CEO and outlining the communication and search process. This ensures that the foundation is prepared to immediately respond to unforeseen circumstances.

Foundation executive transition and succession planning don’t have to feel overwhelming or daunting. With the right guidance and a well-structured plan, it can be a simplified and rewarding process. If you are a foundation CEO or trustee and ready to take the next step in your foundation’s future, I invite you to join me for an upcoming free virtual workshop called The Simplified Succession Plan. Together, we’ll demystify the process and set you on the path to a successful transition.

About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

For over 20 years, top global philanthropies, UHNW donors, celebrity activists, foundations, wealth advisors, and Fortune 500 companies have sought Kris Putnam-Walkerly’s philanthropic advisory services to dramatically increase the clarity, speed, impact and joy of their giving. As a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert, speaker and award-winning author, she’s helped hundreds of foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts. Kris also contributes expert philanthropic commentary to the WSJ, Forbes, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Alliance Magazine, Variety, Thrive Global, Worth Magazine, NPR's Morning Report, and other media. Awards include being named "Philanthropy Advisor of the Year" in 2020 and 2021, "Most Dedicated Philanthropic Advisor" in 2021, one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers" three years in a row, and most recently was a finalist for the 2022 Family Wealth Report Awards for “Philanthropy Advice.” Kris is the author of Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving (Wiley, 2020) and Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders.

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Kris Putnam-Walkerly
Title: Global Philanthropy Expert
Group: Putnam Consulting Group, Inc.
Dateline: Westlake, OH United States
Main Phone: 800-598-2102
Cell Phone: 510-388-5231
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