Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Stay Just a Little Bit Longer

Written by Frances Kunreuther

This weekend I will be on a panel with three amazing women – Katherine Acey, Trishala Deb, and Krystal Portalatin at the Barnard’s Scholar & Feminist 41 conference. We will “share strategies for building meaningful multi-generational relationships that sustain individuals, communities, and political movements for transformative social change.”

In a call to prepare for the conference, we discussed how we will engage the audience, a group that will range in age from college students to elders dedicated to women’s issues. The conversation reminded me that our organizations do not define our lives. Those of us who are dedicated to making change – bending that arc towards justice – do our work both inside and outside of organizations. Yet over time, it can be hard to disassociate ourselves from that organizational brand, especially if we have stayed in one place a decade or more. I remember interviewing an older leader many years ago; I asked her what she wanted to do next. She responded, “the mission of this organization is the mission of my life.”  That sentence was on my mind when Stephanie Clohesy and I wrote The Long Goodbye: Advice, How-Tos and Cautionary Tales for Extended Leadership Exits. This report addresses one of the confounding issues of long-term leadership: can a long-term leader leave their position and still remain in some capacity in the organization?

We found in our earlier research that as older people in nonprofits approach the end of their leadership careers, they are looking forward to more flexibility, less responsibility, and the ability to continue contributing to making change. So it’s no wonder that these leaders think they could begin the next stage of this New Lifecycle of Work within their own organization. But it just isn’t that simple.

Our interviews with those exiting and entering leadership often uncovered problems and conflicts ranging from boards that did not take up their role , to exiting leaders who weren’t ready to give up control, to new leaders who were not able to work with the one leaving.  There were a few groups, however, that were able to make it work. That often depended on a pre-existing relationship between the entering and exiting directors, leadership with high levels of emotional intelligence, and strong board members who stayed involved and helped to manage tensions.

As the current generation of nonprofit executive directors and CEOs age, more organizations and leaders will probably grapple with whether they should stay in another capacity? The exercises in The Long Goodbye can help you figure that out – whether you are the one who is leaving, a member of the Board, or a new leader coming into the organization. The key is understanding the motivation, discussing what it will mean for the organization and the people it serves, and keeping your eyes on the change your organizations seeks, NOT just the institution’s stability.

I am looking forward to the conversation on Saturday both with my fellow panelist and with the audience. It will give us even more tools to make sure we keep working together productively as we move ahead.

Leadership executive transition generational change leadership