The Five Essential Skills of Successful Consultants to Nonprofits

It seems that, at some point, nearly every nonprofit executive flirts with the idea of either becoming a consultant or going to work for a foundation. In the workshops that I lead for transitioning nonprofit leaders, both of these roles seem to hold some fascination for executives when they contemplate what’s next for their careers.

While I will leave it to others to speak to what it takes to succeed as a foundation executive, in this post, I explore what my colleague Susan Schaefer* and I have learned about success in consulting with nonprofits. Reflecting on our combined 35+ years of experience building our consulting practices plus Susan’s work chronicling the success of America’s leading nonprofit consultants, we’ve identified five critical knowledge areas, skills, and abilities that successful consultants master.

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Six Nonprofit CEO Succession Readiness Questions

In preparing for nonprofit CEO succession, too often timing gets confused with readiness. A prior post (“Three Phases of the CEO Succession Timeline”) makes a distinction between timing and readiness, pointing out that they are different but related things. For succession purposes, timing has to do with the sequencing of events while readiness has to do with the willingness to change and the preparation to navigate change. If you are a nonprofit CEO planning to retire, succession readiness involves preparing yourself and your organization for the transition process leading up to your departure as well as preparing for what’s on the other side of the departure threshold — for both you and your organization.

Readiness involves the willingness and preparation to navigate change.

That earlier post also pointed out that, in planning for CEO succession, more time gives you more options. Beginning the groundwork several years ahead of your departure date, if possible, dramatically increases the possible range and depth of the preparations.

More time = more options

These two states of readiness — organizational and executive — are interrelated, as illustrated in the Readiness Grid (Figure 1 below). The ideal scenario is a high state of readiness on the part of both prime actors in CEO succession — the organization and the executive.

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Five Barriers Between You and Your Life’s Next Chapter

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s been impossible to avoid the media stories about the massive wave of baby boomers heading towards retirement. But underlying these stories are some striking facts that signal a major change in leadership in enterprises and institutions throughout the country. The median age for an S&P 500 CEO is 55. Three-fifths of senior federal executives are, or shortly will be, eligible for retirement. And, it’s estimated that two-thirds of our nation’s nonprofit leaders are age 60 or older.

As these leaders head towards the traditional retirement threshold, the situations and opportunities they face are dramatically different than those faced by any previous generation. For a host of reasons, traditional retirement is not the choice of many Boomers, nonprofit leaders included. Here are a few of those reasons:

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Ask Two Courageous Questions Before Launching Your CEO Transition

Before proceeding with a CEO transition, there are two critical questions that you and your board should ask about your organization. These questions are almost never raised because our default mode is focused on maintaining business as usual. In business-as-usual mode, we approach leadership succession as just another problem to solve. In this mode, we see the CEO job opening as simply another vacancy to fill. We don’t recognize that this transition is an important punctuation point for the organization, a moment when we should take a step back and ask, should we fill this vacancy? Should we rethink what we’re doing here? Is there a better path forward? Is there a better way to achieve our mission work?
So here are two courageous questions you and your board should ask and answer at this pivotal moment:

questions to ask before CEO transition

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Five Common CEO Succession Mistakes

(and How to Avoid Them)

In an earlier post, I proposed that every nonprofit CEO needs an exit strategy because every career and every job ends in a transition, eventually. It’s just a matter of when, how and how well-managed that transition will be when the time comes. I also proposed that departing CEOs face three jobs, two of them new. In addition to leading the organization, part of the CEO’s leave-taking process should involve helping ready their organization for the transition and preparing themselves for life’s next chapter. Building on that article, here are some common CEO succession mistakes that nonprofits frequently make and how you can avoid them.

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Three Phases of the CEO Succession Timeline

Executive successions vary widely in their circumstances, but they share a common driver of success: readiness. This includes the executive’s readiness and that of the organization.

Succession Timeline

Timing and readiness are different but related things. Timing has to do with the sequencing of events, processes, or changes. Readiness is about the willingness to make the changes and the level of preparation necessary to successfully navigate the change process. For leadership succession, readiness first involves the willingness of the executive to initiate the succession process – to recognize that it’s time to move on and to take charge of his/her own exit. Readiness also involves how prepared the organization and the executive are to move through the succession. Finally, in the case of a retiring executive, readiness involves his/her willingness to let go and step into the next chapter of life – to move on and not have one foot in and one foot out of the organization. What drives readiness is preparation.

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A Pre-Retirement Money-Phobe Finds a Financial Advisor

Recently my wife and I went through the process of shopping for a new financial advisor. (Okay, I’ll admit it, our first financial advisor.) Like many of us in nonprofit world, I have always been more comfortable with people and ideas rather than finance. But, with retirement looming, my on-again, off-again, DIY-but-mostly-think-about-it-tomorrow approach wasn’t cutting it.

Exposing our financial souls to a stranger was initially humbling but,
in the end, it was a rewarding experience.

Exposing our financial souls to a stranger was initially humbling but, in the end, it was a rewarding experience. This fresh outside look helped us see the places where we’re better off than we expected and where we’re at risk. Most importantly, we now have a clearer path forward. The process made this fiercely independent DIYer a convert.

I know there’s a ton of information out there about financing your retirement, picking advisors, etc., but I thought I would share some of the guides we found useful in our shopping and planning process.

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Every Nonprofit CEO Needs an Exit Strategy

Every career ends in a transition. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed.

Smart leaders – whether they’re running a business or a nonprofit – know that they’ll leave their role at some point. They know that every job and every career ends in a transition eventually. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed that transition is when the time comes.

The longer an executive has been in place,
the more challenges the successor will likely face.

When CEOs move on – especially if they’re a founder, a long-tenured executive, or a transformational leader – their organization needs to devote appropriate time and resources to managing the transition, ensuring that it’s more than just a search and hiring exercise. The longer an executive has been in place, or the more significant their impact on the organization, the harder they are to succeed and the more challenges the successor will likely face. An exit strategy can help pave the way for a smoother transition.

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The Current State of Retirement – 2015

Transamerica Center report gives a snapshot of retirees and compares pre-retiree expectations with retiree realities

A new report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies ( provides a snapshot of current U.S. retirees and an interesting comparison between older workers’ (workers age 50+) expectations about retirement and the realities experienced by current retirees.

While the report covers a good deal more, below are some highlights relevant to nonprofit executives who are considering retirement.

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Exits From the Top Episode #9 – Helping Your Successor Succeed

Welcome to Episode #9 of Exits From The Top. We willl be talking with Tom Adams of Raffa, PC in Washington, DC about how a departing executive can help pave the way for their successor to thrive in the role. We explore what a departing executive can do before, during and after a leadership transition to help ensure that their successor succeeds.

This is one wisdom-packed interview. Here are just a few highlights:

  • The importance of the departing executive gaining clarity about their departure.
  • The window of opportunity for organizational sustainability planning ahead of the transition.
  • The roles that leadership, strategy, business model, resources and culture play in organizational sustainability.
  • The importance of looking at the organization’s bench strength and how to do it.
  • The fact that leadership succession sometimes requires us to have courageous conversations.
  • The impact of executive sabbaticals.
  • The importance of getting beyond the hero model of leadership.
  • Striking a balance between encouraging leadership around you to step up, but still staying engaged.

Watch the Video

Tom is one of the foremost thought leaders on nonprofit leadership succession and transition. In addition to several decades of direct experience leading CEO transition projects, Tom spearheaded two national research and development projects on nonprofit leadership transitions. First, in the 1990s a project funded by the Kellogg Foundation, and in the early 2000s, a project supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Casey project resulted in a number of research reports and a series of monographs on leadership transitions (links below).

Through these projects Tom has had a central role in training a generation of transition and succession consultants. He is the author of The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide: Proven Paths for Leaders and Organizations, which was published by Jossey Bass. He has also authored a number of articles published in the Nonprofit Quarterly, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and other publications.

None of us are here forever. How do we make sure that our important mission work is going to be sustained over time?

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