Estimates suggest that up to 75% of nonprofit leaders plan to leave their positions in the next five to 10 years. And unless there are some good systems in place, operations at an organization can begin to break down when an executive director or CEO leaves. However, according to BoardSource, only 27% of nonprofits have a documented plan for the succession of the executive director or CEO.
At A Place Called Home (APCH), a nonprofit that serves Los Angeles youth, leadership and staff members knew for several months that their CEO of 13 years was resigning. In early 2022, Jonathan Zeichner posted on LinkedIn, “I love my work, colleagues, and the kids, families and community we serve at A Place Called Home. That will never change. However, after 30 years leading three wonderful nonprofits in L.A., it’s time for me to spend more time with my own family and serve the community in some new ways.”
Jonathan and APCH were open and transparent about his departure and the succession planning process. The CEO even wrote a five-part blog series for the nonprofit’s website about the process. Oftentimes, organizations are hesitant to speak about the transition of executives because they fear it will scare off funders. After APCH’s staff, board, and many donors were told Jonathan was retiring, the nonprofit received a $2 million gift from Mackenzie Scott’s philanthropy.
This gift is now supporting key organizational development initiatives as the agency primes for an exciting future under the leadership of its new CEO, Norayma Cabot. This gift is allowing APCH to expand its capacity and data-driven culture in order to better serve south-central Los Angeles youth.
Janet Sharkis—a former executive director and the community development executive at Social Solutions—sat down with Laura Mills—senior director of data and systems operations at APCH and an Apricot 360 user—to chat about the organization’s succession planning strategy, what advice they can impart on other nonprofits planning for a transition, and how our case management software has assisted in the whole process. Read on for the full Q&A.
Laura: I was doing some research on a nonprofit executive tenure and saw that the average CEO or executive director lasts around five to 10 years, and Jonathan joined us in 2009. So, he’s overall very committed to the organization and the mission! And I think we were also lucky because although he’s retiring, he’s still going to continue to consult with us, and he wasn’t leaving for another executive director or CEO job. So, I think that that’s something that’s important to kind of keep in mind as we talk about succession planning and transitions is that there’s a difference between planning for someone’s retirement and planning for someone getting another job. Because, of course, if he was looking for another job, he wouldn’t want to necessarily give his notice before he knew that he was going to have that job secured, and he wouldn’t know how long it would take. CEO and executive director searches typically take six or seven months, so I think it can be a lot harder to have the kind of transparency that he was able to bring if it’s someone who’s mid-career, and they are looking for another role.
Because Jonathan was able to be flexible and was able to give us a lot of notice based on those plans, we were able to have a lot of internal and external transparency around that whole transition process. He talked to the board about it, and as a leadership team, we’ve known since last January, so we were able to spend all last year preparing for setting up capacity even before the search was publicly launched, which was in December and January of this year.
And so that’s something that wasn’t a big shift for us. Of course, Jonathan is always building, and we’re adding programs and we’re building capacity. So, we were already thinking along those lines.
We did projects such as putting together our first organizational dashboard which has metrics based on key goals and priorities—and so obviously that’s something that’s helpful for us in the moment. But really, a lot of these projects we’ve been working on are about how we can set up systems so that when the next CEO comes in, they’ll have the information they need at their disposal.
I’ve been part of CEO transitions where you have a month or two notice. And it’s a little bit more of the fire sale type thing—’What are the highest priorities? We must make sure the funder relationships are transitioned, etc.’ And you don’t even get into the internal organizational capacity building during the transition, like what are the long-term projects that we need to be thinking about?
Laura: Some of the information in the dashboard is from Apricot, but it’s also organization-wide. So, we have financials on there—budgeting—so really all the various tracking systems that we have all play a part in feeding into the dashboard metrics.
Laura: We talked a lot about the ongoing priorities that we have for APCH, such as serving more opportunity youth—teens who are disconnected from work and school and who may be involved in the juvenile justice system or foster care systems, etc. And so that’s something that the dashboard and Apricot have really fed into our tracking. That was something we asked a lot about in the interview process. For example, we want to continue to engage more Black youth, so we were able to ask, “What would your plan be for that?” We’re keeping an eye on the metrics, and so we were looking for someone who is in line with APCH and its service model.
Our new CEO, Norayma Cabot, is very passionate about the importance of data, so we’re going to only continue to dive deeper into data and data analysis as part of telling the APCH story.
Laura: And that’s the thing about succession planning. There are two facets of it when you think about nonprofit succession planning, which is the capacity building and the stability.
I think that’s always part of it—making sure the overlap of the Venn diagram is always complete. We want to know where the metrics are. We want to be able to quickly and easily tell someone how we’re doing against our mission. Those things that you would want to be able to do to on-board a new CEO are also the things we need to be able to do to run an effective organization. So, you want to focus on organizational capacity and the internal talent pipeline, as well. So, it’s important to make sure that your board is interacting with other senior staff and thinking about them as potential leadership candidates, because that’s where I’ve seen organizations really get caught on the back foot. They weren’t expecting a transition to happen—the executive director must leave for whatever reason—and they don’t have that internal pipeline.
Laura: The funny thing about succession planning is that I think sometimes the CEOs are the worst enemy in the planning process. Sometimes it’s by virtue of it having to be the ‘one-man band’ at a really small organization, or sometimes you have a leader who just really wants to hold on to the reins. And so, it’s hard for them to start bringing in other people to projects, funder relationships, board engagements, etc. If you’re not bringing others into the fold for years, it’s going to be hard to have a successful transition. Yes, Jonathan gave us a lot of notice, but it was also about how he was acting as CEO before he even gave that notice. It should be a continuous thing, not something you do when you think a transition is imminent.
Laura: That was the goal in selecting Apricot. Our previous system didn’t allow us to fully track our services or to customize that tracking to reflect the specific programs we offer. We knew that we had really reached the limit of that functionality, and Jonathan and the board and everyone wanted to continue to grow as an organization. We needed more capacity to be able to do that. So that was certainly part of our pitch for Apricot 360. As we made the pitch and told them about the various capacities, everyone on the leadership team was really excited about it.
Laura: We were really transparent with Mackenzie Scott throughout the vetting process. It’s not something that is commonly talked about or discussed.
The Mackenzie Scott grant is helping us to really build and leverage Apricot. One of the things that we’re spending those funds on is the creation of a program evaluation framework. With Apricot, we were able to catch up and track all the services that we’re providing, but because we have 20-plus various programs across several departments and divisions, a lot of our metrics have been a little bit ad hoc, or just by program. What we’re doing now is we’re working with an external consultant who’s helping us create a unified, consolidated evaluation framework for continuous quality improvement at APCH. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the Mackenzie Scott grant or Apricot. So, it’s a great synergy of us being able to build on this foundation, leverage this additional investment, and it’s great timing with our new CEO coming in. They’re going to have a lot more information about how APCH programs are operating, how our logic model looks like in effect, and how we can increase and diversify our fundraising landscape as we build out more of these metrics.
We didn’t put things on pause at APCH waiting for our next CEO. We know what we need to do to serve the community, and that’s why the board was really focusing on bringing someone in who has a natural affinity for APCH’s mission, programs, and community, and will bring us to the next level to deepen what we’re doing.
Laura: Our staff turnover rate is around 30% annually. For a lot of direct service organizations, that’s very typical. We pay close attention to our exit interviews and the red flags that come up there, in addition to the attrition rate, because we feel like they’re equally important. It’s not just when people are leaving, but why? We expect some attrition—we want people to continue their careers and do what’s good for them, and go back to school, etc. But what we’re really focusing on is building the capacity to not have disruption due to that transition. And that’s really where Apricot comes in for our programs staff. For example, we’re not going to have the same math instructor for 12 years and being able to go in and see all the documents and all the information and the referrals and everything for that member that previously wasn’t available is necessary for making sure there’s no disruption.
For an organization like APCH we oftentimes start with a young person at age 8 and support them until they’re a college senior. We’re not doing an eight-week program where you can kind of reasonably expect staff will stay for that implementation. So, because we work with young people for so long, it’s really important we have that consolidated database, because we expect staff are not going to necessarily stay for 16 years.
Laura: Always be ready for anyone to transition. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t invest in your staff and not give people long-term projects. You should of course continue with the work, but in terms of succession planning, always think about your documentation. That’s something we can all do. Every single staff member can document their positions.
In terms of leadership, you should make sure that the documentation is happening and work on your internal succession pipeline. Invest in your staff and staff training and talk to employees explicitly about qualifications and skills for the next position if that’s something they’re interested in. A lot of times the frontline managers don’t have time to have these conversations with their staff. They’re not thinking along the lines of, ‘Abe doesn’t want to stay in music education. He’s really interested in nutrition. And now, if this manager position in nutrition opens, I know that I can plug Abe in there.’
Laura: Bring other people into your relationships. The next time you go out on that funder meeting, bring your director of development who maybe you wouldn’t have usually brought. When you’re going to that community meeting, bring your program director. And then if you do need to make a transition and give two weeks’ notice, all your other external key relationships will have the context of the organization and will know who to reach out to. That’s where nonprofits lose a lot of momentum and connection and relationships. If the executive director silos that, it can be bad for the nonprofit.
Laura: Work with your CEO to get to know the senior staff and think about that as you’re interacting with senior staff. Look for the leadership capacities in them that you would want to develop and expand on.
And ask about codification and capacity as part of board reports. Board members should know what kind of documentation new staff members are getting. They should know, big picture, what’s in the documentation for programs.
|_biz_flagsA||1 year||A Cloudflare cookie set to record users’ settings as well as for authentication and analytics.|
|_biz_pendingA||1 year||A Cloudflare cookie set to record users’ settings as well as for authentication and analytics.|
|_biz_sid||30 minutes||This cookie is set by Bizible, to store the user's session id.|
|ARRAffinity||session||ARRAffinity cookie is set by Azure app service, and allows the service to choose the right instance established by a user to deliver subsequent requests made by that user.|
|ARRAffinitySameSite||session||This cookie is set by Windows Azure cloud, and is used for load balancing to make sure the visitor page requests are routed to the same server in any browsing session.|
|BIGipServerab09web-nginx-app_https||session||This cookie is associated with a computer network load balancer by the website host to ensure requests are routed to the correct endpoint and required sessions are managed.|
|cookielawinfo-checbox-analytics||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Analytics".|
|cookielawinfo-checbox-functional||11 months||The cookie is set by GDPR cookie consent to record the user consent for the cookies in the category "Functional".|
|cookielawinfo-checbox-others||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Other.|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-advertisement||1 year||Set by the GDPR Cookie Consent plugin, this cookie is used to record the user consent for the cookies in the "Advertisement" category .|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-necessary||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookies is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Necessary".|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-performance||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Performance".|
|CookieLawInfoConsent||1 year||Records the default button state of the corresponding category & the status of CCPA. It works only in coordination with the primary cookie.|
|__atuvc||1 year 1 month||AddThis sets this cookie to ensure that the updated count is seen when one shares a page and returns to it, before the share count cache is updated.|
|__atuvs||30 minutes||AddThis sets this cookie to ensure that the updated count is seen when one shares a page and returns to it, before the share count cache is updated.|
|__cf_bm||30 minutes||This cookie, set by Cloudflare, is used to support Cloudflare Bot Management.|
|_biz_nA||1 year||This cookie, set by Bizible, is a sequence number that Bizible includes for all requests, for internal diagnostics purposes.|
|_biz_uid||1 year||This cookie is set by Bizible, to store user id on the current domain.|
|bcookie||1 year||LinkedIn sets this cookie from LinkedIn share buttons and ad tags to recognize browser ID.|
|lang||session||LinkedIn sets this cookie to remember a user's language setting.|
|lidc||1 day||LinkedIn sets the lidc cookie to facilitate data center selection.|
|UserMatchHistory||1 month||LinkedIn sets this cookie for LinkedIn Ads ID syncing.|
|_gaexp||2 months 10 days 10 hours||Google Analytics installs this cookie to determine a user's inclusion in an experiment and the expiry of experiments a user has been included in.|
|_uetsid||1 day||Bing Ads sets this cookie to engage with a user that has previously visited the website.|
|_uetvid||1 year 24 days||Bing Ads sets this cookie to engage with a user that has previously visited the website.|
|SRM_B||1 year 24 days||Used by Microsoft Advertising as a unique ID for visitors.|
|_BUID||1 year||This cookie, set by Bizible, is a universal user id to identify the same user across multiple clients’ domains.|
|_ga||2 years||The _ga cookie, installed by Google Analytics, calculates visitor, session and campaign data and also keeps track of site usage for the site's analytics report. The cookie stores information anonymously and assigns a randomly generated number to recognize unique visitors.|
|_ga_33YSH1JFFW||2 years||This cookie is installed by Google Analytics.|
|_gcl_au||3 months||Provided by Google Tag Manager to experiment advertisement efficiency of websites using their services.|
|_gd_session||4 hours||This cookie is used for collecting information on users visit to the website. It collects data such as total number of visits, average time spent on the website and the pages loaded.|
|_gd_visitor||2 years||This cookie is used for collecting information on the users visit such as number of visits, average time spent on the website and the pages loaded for displaying targeted ads.|
|_gid||1 day||Installed by Google Analytics, _gid cookie stores information on how visitors use a website, while also creating an analytics report of the website's performance. Some of the data that are collected include the number of visitors, their source, and the pages they visit anonymously.|
|_hjAbsoluteSessionInProgress||30 minutes||Hotjar sets this cookie to detect the first pageview session of a user. This is a True/False flag set by the cookie.|
|_hjFirstSeen||30 minutes||Hotjar sets this cookie to identify a new user’s first session. It stores a true/false value, indicating whether it was the first time Hotjar saw this user.|
|_hjIncludedInPageviewSample||2 minutes||Hotjar sets this cookie to know whether a user is included in the data sampling defined by the site's pageview limit.|
|_hjIncludedInSessionSample||2 minutes||Hotjar sets this cookie to know whether a user is included in the data sampling defined by the site's daily session limit.|
|_hjTLDTest||session||To determine the most generic cookie path that has to be used instead of the page hostname, Hotjar sets the _hjTLDTest cookie to store different URL substring alternatives until it fails.|
|at-rand||never||AddThis sets this cookie to track page visits, sources of traffic and share counts.|
|CONSENT||2 years||YouTube sets this cookie via embedded youtube-videos and registers anonymous statistical data.|
|undefined||never||Wistia sets this cookie to collect data on visitor interaction with the website's video-content, to make the website's video-content more relevant for the visitor.|
|uvc||1 year 1 month||Set by addthis.com to determine the usage of addthis.com service.|
|_fbp||3 months||This cookie is set by Facebook to display advertisements when either on Facebook or on a digital platform powered by Facebook advertising, after visiting the website.|
|_mkto_trk||2 years||This cookie, provided by Marketo, has information (such as a unique user ID) that is used to track the user's site usage. The cookies set by Marketo are readable only by Marketo.|
|ANONCHK||10 minutes||The ANONCHK cookie, set by Bing, is used to store a user's session ID and also verify the clicks from ads on the Bing search engine. The cookie helps in reporting and personalization as well.|
|fr||3 months||Facebook sets this cookie to show relevant advertisements to users by tracking user behaviour across the web, on sites that have Facebook pixel or Facebook social plugin.|
|loc||1 year 1 month||AddThis sets this geolocation cookie to help understand the location of users who share the information.|
|MUID||1 year 24 days||Bing sets this cookie to recognize unique web browsers visiting Microsoft sites. This cookie is used for advertising, site analytics, and other operations.|
|test_cookie||15 minutes||The test_cookie is set by doubleclick.net and is used to determine if the user's browser supports cookies.|
|VISITOR_INFO1_LIVE||5 months 27 days||A cookie set by YouTube to measure bandwidth that determines whether the user gets the new or old player interface.|
|YSC||session||YSC cookie is set by Youtube and is used to track the views of embedded videos on Youtube pages.|
|yt-remote-connected-devices||never||YouTube sets this cookie to store the video preferences of the user using embedded YouTube video.|
|yt-remote-device-id||never||YouTube sets this cookie to store the video preferences of the user using embedded YouTube video.|
|_an_uid||7 days||No description available.|
|_clck||1 year||No description|
|_clsk||1 day||No description|
|_dc_gtm_UA-718299-1||1 minute||No description|
|_hjSession_2602456||30 minutes||No description|
|_hjSessionUser_2602456||1 year||No description|
|6suuid||2 years||No description available.|
|AnalyticsSyncHistory||1 month||No description|
|CLID||1 year||No description|
|d-a8e6||1 year||No description available.|
|dpi_test||1 day||No description|
|dpi_utmOrigVals||5 months 27 days||No description|
|intercom-id-rbb6qelf||8 months 26 days 1 hour||No description|
|intercom-session-rbb6qelf||7 days||No description|
|li_gc||5 months 27 days||No description|
|loglevel||never||No description available.|
|referrer||session||No description available.|
|s-9da4||15 minutes||No description available.|
|SM||session||No description available.|
|xtc||1 year 1 month||No description|