Communicating During Nonprofit Leadership Transitions
By Robin L. Cabral
Nonprofits undergoing a leadership change need to proactively communicate the change to key stakeholders, including donors and funders, to forestall potential unrest and ensure a smooth transition.
The following will help.
Communicate the resignation and the new appointment promptly
Given real-time information sharing via social media, it is crucial to proactively communicate the change after a board meeting approving the resignation and endorsing the replacement, before key audiences hear about it elsewhere. The form of communication depends on the audience and also the forum, but may entail the following:
Staff: Notify all staff via email or in-person meeting.
Administrators: In-person, one-by-one, if possible. Personal phone call, only if in-person visit is not doable, such as due to geographic constraints.
Other directors: Email.
Database list (if this exists): Notify all constituents in the database via email distribution. Segment out donors at different tiers for more personal communication, based on best business practices, as follows:
Major donors and VIPs: In-person visit or phone call, with follow-up email.
Mid-level donors/other important constituents: Personal mailed letter signed by resigning leader to be sent to donors and other special contacts.
All other donors and constituents: Email blast”.
Social media: All social media posts (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) should be made directly after important individuals are notified. Internal personnel and major donors should have received the update, call, or visit before a message is posted. But, it is important to address social media quickly afterwards as word will spread swiftly.
Volunteers: A tiered strategy should be approached, depending on the level of volunteer engagement.
Primary volunteers: Personal phone call or in-person visit.
General volunteer level: Posted notice on premises and mailed letter.
Event commitments: For events already booked, reach out personally via the appropriately deemed means of communication to confirm who will attend the event (e.g., the resigning or the new leader.) It is best to be proactive about these potential calendar changes as questions will arise once the announcement has been made.
Crafting appropriate messaging for the above communications
Determine the most appropriate individual for the communication. The person transitioning out may make the most sense for donors, but this can also depend on timing. The board chair can also send out communications, if appropriate. Although, sometimes that might not work if it has not been an amicable split. An interim executive director or someone else in a role crucial to the transition might also make sense.
Some considerations to include for the creation of the messaging and the process include:
Develop talking points to provide to staff for communications with visitors and callers to ensure message consistency.
Provide staff with distributed communications, such as the press release, and advise them to also refer constituents to the website, newsletter, or other relevant materials with information about the announcement.
Create a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) document for all staff to use for reference.
Create a Who to Call” list as a staff tool to determine where to connect certain calls. For example, media calls might be directed to an interim director whereas donor calls may be to a development person.
Major donors and VIPs: It is very important that these individuals receive the news personally and not through the press or rumors. As noted above, a direct phone call should occur, with a follow-up email. But, for those situations where an individual cannot be reached by telephone, a voicemail should be recorded letting them know there is an announcement and that an email will follow.
Social media and web posting: Social media and web postings should include comments about the new appointment, including pictures and a press release.
Establish a timeline calendar for the remaining transition process
The following rough outline is recommended:
Phase I communications: Immediately in process, within same month of decision, with some being more urgent than others. For example, staff, administrators, major donors, and social media must be acted upon immediately.
Phase II communications: Minimum of 30 days following initial announcement.
Phase III communications: Day 1 of new appointment, and throughout following few months.
Phase II communications: Announce the change in leadership
Before the change in position occurs, a more formal acknowledgment should be made thanking the resigning leader for their service. As noted above, consider who is best suited to communicate, e.g., board chair, interim executive director, etc. The messaging should contain the following:
Details of the board meeting date and the decision agreeing with the change in leadership.
When the leader will resign and confirm board approval.
Thank the resigning leader for their service.
Outline specific accomplishments of the leader during his/her tenure.
Include a quote by the outgoing leader to the constituents.
Farewell events will also need to be in the planning stages by this phase and communicated to relevant attendees.
Phase III communications: Reiterate the change and thank former leader
The messaging should focus on the new leader:
Outline the credentials of the incoming leader and include a bio, photo, and social media links.
Highlight relevant experience of the successor.
Include a quote from another leader in the organization about the outgoing leader and/or the arriving leader.
Lay out the transition plan to demonstrate how the outgoing and incoming leaders will coordinate to ensure a smooth transition. Include the timing and dates of when the succession of events and leadership change will occur.
Use the opportunity to reiterate the nonprofit's mission and vision.
Include contact information for questions, such as telephone number, website, and/or email address.