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Executive Director Transitions: Good for Fundraising?

Recently, a development director called me very worried.  The executive director at the organization where she worked was leaving.

She was worried about losing the relationships he built over time.  She was worried about losing all the good will he has in the community. What will the donors think, she asked? Will they all jump ship?

Hold up, I told her.  This is an opportunity.

While the transition at the top of an organization can be a time of change, it can also present the opportunity to solidify your organization’s relationship with your donors in a very real way.

It is a chance to connect with donors and build relationships.  It’s a chance to raise money – perhaps even more money than you were expecting without the transition.

But there’s a limited window of opportunity.  From the time of the outgoing executive director’s announcement to about six months after the incoming executive starts is not the time to debate and worry, it’s the time to act!

Here’s your timeline for fundraising activities:

When announcement about the departure is made:  Craft a message right from the start that explains the transition and a vision for the future.  Call your key major donors, foundations officers, and corporate funders before they learn about it on the street.  For those that you don’t reach, send the announcement with a personal email.

One month before departure:  The outgoing executive director (ED) contacts the funders that he or she has been cultivating to connect them with another person within the organization to which that donor can turn during the transition.  This can be a development director or a major gifts officer, or another senior person.  This step can initiate new relationships between key funders and other people within the organization, which can be very beneficial for both.

When the job announcement is put out: Send out the job description to any donors, foundations officers, or other funders that you think would appreciate seeing it.  This is a great way to keep key donors informed, involve them in the process, and potentially get prospects for the job.

When the new Executive Director is hired:  Celebrate!  Spread the news far and wide through all your communications channels.  Be sure to let the new executive’s persona and key messages shine through.  Consider having him or her start a blog or send email updates to donors and supporters to document these first few weeks and solidify their own personal “brand”.

Within one month after the new Executive Director starts: Create a list of key donors for the new executive director to connect with right away.  The message for the new ED to deliver is, “I am just getting to know the organization and I’d love to hear what you think.”  The communication can start via phone or email with the eventual goal of having the executive director meet in person with as many of these major donors as possible.  I’ve seen these “advice” visits open doors to donors that were impossible to meet with before and I’ve seen them turn more passive donors into more engaged ones.

Within two months after the new Executive Director starts: Sit down with the new ED and see who they know in the funding world and how you might cultivate them. Tell program officers, corporate contacts, and government funders that the new ED knows about this new position.  Let’s face it, people give to people and sometimes the money does indeed follow the confidence that a funding institution has in an individual.

Within three months after the new Executive Director starts: Host a breakfast or cocktail party (or a series of them) for donors to come and meet the new ED.  This is a great way to get to a larger swath of donors who may want to learn more about the new ED and the direction he or she is setting.  Be sure to follow up and ask what they thought!

Within six months after the new Executive Director starts: Get the new ED to host a conference call for a group of donors to let them know what he or she thinks at the six-month point.  This is great way to engage middle donors that might not otherwise get attention.

Yes, transitions are challenging, and you want them to be few and far between, but I’ve seen a proactive plan open doors that might have previously been closed.  If you are going through this, don’t sit and fret.  Make this transition work for you.

Have any other ideas?

1 Comment

  1. Pamela Grow says:

    It’s great to see this topic addressed – and how very right you are! When transitions occur in a transparent, joyful way, yes they are opportunities for genuine engagement with your community and donors.

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