What Grantees Wish Grantmakers Knew

New CEOs need some “breathing room.” A transition is a time “when the new chief executive needs breathing room, to think about your vision, to spend enough time with your employees and with your principal stakeholders,” explained a new CEO of a women’s organization. “The best way to create breathing room is by easing the burden around meeting financial goals. There’s nothing better for a chief executive to be able to tell their board than that they’re raising money, and nothing better than for it to be so-called ‘easy money’ for general support, for transition, so you don’t have to bend over backwards to make up some new reason to need it. You can say what the real reason is.”

Special funding can help new CEOs back up words with actions. The new, young CEO of a regional community organizing project used a three-year, $30,000 transition grant to hire a consultant and a coach and to hold three special board meetings, two staff retreats, and three large membership meetings to talk about what people thought was going on, what was actually going on, and how to move forward. “When you have meetings like that and people feel like full participants, it creates a deeper sense of ownership in the organization,” he said. Even if there is no transition funding, continuing support is crucial.

The pace and output of a nonprofit’s work may slow down during a transition. Despite everyone’s best efforts not to let a transition affect an organization’s work, it can. One new CEO explained that he hadn’t understood “how time-consuming” the leadership transition process would be, or that it would demand that he spend so much time visiting funders, attending to the organization’s public profile, or helping staff to assume new roles. One result, he said, was that he missed a foundation’s reporting deadline. He also wishes he had been “less ambitious” in the goals he put forth in funding proposals; reasonable under other circumstances, they were daunting at the beginning of his tenure as CEO.

A little negativity goes a long way. New CEOs are sensitive to any sign of lack of support, and they know others will zero in on it, too. One grantee argued that “even just a little bit of negativity” can be damaging when people are wondering about the impact of a leadership succession. Soon after he was appointed, funders made numerous site visits to his organization; some were scheduled, but many were not. Although he understood that the funders needed reassurance, he also read their actions as concern about the stability of the organization, which put enormous extra pressure on him to articulate its well-being.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Executive Transitions.