For about 7 years now I have been paying attention to the basic concept of leadership transition in non-profits. At first there the conversation was about the lack of transition planning with dual concerns about “older executives” not trusting emerging leaders to take the reins and the perceived lack of work/life balance in the executive position.

About 4 years ago, the conversation didn’t focus as much about the old folks getting out of the way, (even though most of those who said they planned to retire hadn’t). There was still concerns about lack of both succession planning and opportunity for work-life balance.

Even more recently, it has been noted that the expected mass exodus of non-profit executives still hasn’t happened. There was still a concern about succession planning, though the need for boards to pursue good governance started to come into focus.

Last week Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ) drew attention to a study of non-profits conducted by Third Sector New England that examined the issue of executive transition.  The study findings reflect further development of the trends seen in past studies.

Actually, the one finding that hasn’t changed is that “Nearly two-thirds of responding leaders said they will be leaving their jobs within five years, and 30% are planning to depart in the next two years.”

The report notes that number has been consistent for at least a decade and the expected exodus hasn’t occurred yet.

The way things are going, discussion about leadership dying off is going to eclipse comments about audiences dying off.

But per NPQ, there really isn’t a great push for current executives to move aside to allow new blood to take over. Partially because there isn’t a lot of new blood interested in taking over.

…the troubles in leadership transitions may be on the “demand” rather than the “supply side.” In other words, the challenge may not lie in the supply of competent emerging leaders, as has been heralded in the past, but with the attractiveness of the job of executive.

Whether  a result of a realization of this fact or a recognition of the larger issues at hand, the focus has shifted from a need for a succession plan to replace a single person to the need for a plan to sustain the organization as a whole. (my emphasis)

“SHIFT the framework for succession planning to deep sustainability.

“It is time to change how the sector thinks about and approaches succession planning. Succession planning is not just about preparing for an individual leader transition; nor should it be viewed as a technical fix or a transactional exercise. Rather, it is about ensuring organizational sustainability by identifying and addressing key vulnerabilities so that the organization is not dependent on any one leader, funder, strategy, or way of thinking. Succession planning touches on everything from framing choices for the future (including asking whether the organization should exist), developing sustainable business models, to strengthening staff and board leadership—in essence, all the core activities needed to support the success of the organization’s mission and its leaders over time.”

As part of the recognition that the success of the organization doesn’t revolve around identifying and hiring a single talented leader, the report also extends the concept of the importance of focusing on board governance.

SHIFT the vision for governance.

The expectations and responsibilities of boards need to shift in favor of governance over fundraising, and that means developing a shared vision for the organization, along with strategies to implement that vision, achieving operational excellence, and, yes, finding the resources to support the work. A short-term focus on fundraising undermines long-term sustainability and leads to continued dissatisfaction between leaders and their boards. This shift will not only require a shared understanding of what is effective and impactful governance, it calls for a higher level of engagement and learning together between leaders and boards – changing what may be a transactional partnership into a generative and transformative one…

This will likely be an important step in making the role of executive director an attractive undertaking again. Per NPQ:

“Among the notable findings of this report is that approximately 23 percent of respondents reported being recruited into what was essentially a turnaround situation—slightly more than reported taking over a stable organization.”

Given only 22% reported taking over stable organizations, the other 78% were in iffy to dire circumstances. That takes a toll on the existing leadership and makes for unattractive prospects for potential leaders. The biggest concerns respondents had were focused on work-life balance and personal health factors.

There are other interesting findings and suggestions contained in the study. One significant area of recommendation is abandoning overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness. Momentum seems to continue to grow around that issue.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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