Prepare, Pivot & Thrive - Succession, Strategy, Sustainability & Search

Founding Executives


As the founder of a nonprofit organization you have put your heart and soul into creating a vital institution that is meeting a particular need in your community. As John Carver wrote in Nonprofit World, "We are fortunate that there are souls so insightful or so driven that they stimulate others of us to new levels of commitment. These leaders swim against the tide of apathy and common judgment long enough for those of us less foresighted to catch up."

These close connections to your organization can make the prospect of leaving, whether for retirement or for other work, difficult. Further, the influence that the founding executive usually has over board and staff members can make it difficult for them to step forward and offer the leadership that is often necessary during a transition.

Our research suggests that founders often feel intensely conflicted about the decision to leave. The founder's personal identity is likely wrapped up in the success and operation of the organization making it extremely difficult to think about future plans. As many founders say, "I've put my whole life into this place for so long, it is hard to imagine what is next." Further, the private contemplation that most founders go through before deciding to leave can be particularly lonely. There are few people with whom the founder can talk about ideas and possibilities without risking instability for the organization or undermining their hard-fought position.

From the organization's perspective, the loss of a founder is often a defining moment. It is the time when separated from its principal motivator and leader, the organization's board, staff and other stakeholders have the opportunity to come together and define an institutional space and direction for the organization. Unfortunately, this process takes time and commitment and usually occurs under difficult circumstances often caused by the stress and emotion of the transition. How the board responds, the steps the founding executive takes to prepare the organization, and the skills and understanding of the new executive can all impact the outcome of this moment.

Some of the key topics that are discussed in our research include:

  • Legacy—honoring what has gone before
  • Board Development—an often necessary part of founder transitions
  • How organization life cycles can impact the selection of the next executive
  • The emotional process of letting go
  • Identifying the costs in founder transitions
  • The successor's experience

For more on lessons in managing founder transitions, see Founder Case Studies and the Founder Transition Lessons in this section.

If you are a founding executive director who is planning his/her departure, we also suggest reviewing the Introduction to Executive Transition, especially the Transition Tips for Departing Executives.



Raffa PC acquired TransitionGuides in January 2015.

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