Navigating Funder Relationships During Executive Transitions: Part 3

September 24, 2019

Dozens of Elevate clients experience executive transitions every year. To help our clients better understand how to engage funders throughout the process, we’ve partnered with Carlyn Madden, a search consultant and former grantmaker based in the Washington, DC region, on a three-part series to highlight the challenges and opportunities of executive transitions.

In this post, we’ll hear advice from funders in the DC region about how nonprofits can engage before, during and after an executive transition.

Thanks for following along over the last few weeks to learn how you can successfully manage (and even strengthen) funding relationships during an executive transition. For previous posts, check in with Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.


Prompt, consistent, and transparent communication is critical to engage funders throughout an executive transition process.

This summer, search consultant Carlyn Madden connected with three funders in the DC region. In discussing what makes for successful executive transitions, common pitfalls for nonprofits to avoid, and strengthening funder relationships throughout the transition period, this blog post draws upon experiences of professionals working in a variety of capacities with private and family foundations.

Special thanks to Julian Haynes, the Maryland Program Director at the Meyer Foundation; Mary Mulcahy and Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Directors at The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; and Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor at SARC Consulting for sharing their perspectives on this topic.

On successful traits, common pitfalls, and internal candidates:

“The most successful transitions don’t come as a surprise to funders. If an executive director announces their transition alongside a request for funding to support that transition, I’m not often able to be as helpful as I could if we had been in an ongoing dialogue. I often check in with grant partners about their transition and succession plans during periodic meetings or site visits. Because we have established trust and candor, we’re able to have open and transparent conversations about the process. We had a recent example of a founder-led nonprofit that we’ve supported over the years. The founder and I discussed her need to get staffing structured in a way that would allow her to step back from the day-today, and ultimately transition. We provided funding toward a sabbatical, which gave the E.D. a needed break and allowed them to begin making a plan with their board and small staff. For me, this is a great example of when there is a trusting partnership between the funder and the nonprofit, it is easier for the transition to go smoothly.”
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

“There has been more than one instance of us finding out about an executive transition by someone forwarding me the job posting. It is not every day that an E.D. leaves, willingly or otherwise. So while often not a shock, I do expect to hear the news from the board. A mass email or something personalized – it doesn’t make a difference. The most important thing is that we are made aware of the situation. Very often, an E.D. or senior staff member who has left an organization will reach out to us directly, so it’s in the board’s best interest to frame the narrative quickly to stay ahead of any rumors.”
Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“It’s best when grantees are upfront and transparent with funders as early as possible. We like to see board leadership and a robust search committee engaged in the process. A thoughtful, thorough approach will identify new leadership to take the nonprofit where they want to go. That said, boards are often compelled to look for bright and shiny external candidates, missing an opportunity to consider inside talent. An internal candidate who knows what works and what doesn’t can do a lot for an organization’s culture and stability.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

“One example of a well-planned leadership transition would be an Executive Director reaching out to me to say, ‘I just announced to the board that I’m leaving in six months. There is a succession plan already in place. I’ve made myself available to advise the board, but I won’t be a part of the process.’ On some occasions, however, an E.D. calls to share news of their departure, followed by an announcement that they plan to join the board. We’ve seen this set up their successor for failure and cause rapid leadership turnover, ultimately damaging the organization. Another challenging situation can occur when, in response to an unplanned departure, the board gives the job to a current staff member without enough due diligence. Often, the incoming Executive Director is not prepared for the role and lacks a clear understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader.”
Mary Mulcahy, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

On the role of the outgoing executive director during a transition:

“When an Executive Director confides in me that they’re planning their departure, I recommend they spend a week keeping track of their “billable hours.” Recording everything they do in 10- or 15-minute increments will help inform their job description. For example, a board might guess that an E.D. spends a third of their time on fundraising, but in reality, the E.D. manages a large federal contract and the time spent is closer to 60 percent. Only the current E.D. will really know this.”
Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“A period of overlap with the next executive director can be useful. I think it works best when the departing Executive Director is contracted as an advisor, rather than remaining on the payroll. Nonprofits that won’t be engaging the outgoing E.D. should consider hiring an interim director. Having stable leadership at the helm gives the board time to figure out what type of leader the organization will need moving forward.”
Mary Mulcahy, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“I have seen successful transitions where the outgoing executive director has a limited connection in an advisory capacity. This allows an outgoing E.D. to remain accessible and available when the new E.D. reaches out for institutional knowledge, but do not insert themselves into the day-to-day affairs of the organization.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

“The outgoing executive director’s role totally depends on the nonprofit – there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. An overlap can help with the hand off, but sometimes this isn’t possible. It is important that the board identify the E.D.’s ongoing relationship as the transition begins and communicate this during the recruitment process. For some nonprofits, having the outgoing E.D. join the board or serve in an advisory capacity makes sense, with deference to the new executive – but in other cases, and depending on personalities and many other dynamics – it’s best if the outgoing E.D. steps away completely so new leadership can flourish.
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

On getting acquainted with program officers:

“New executive directors should reach out early in their tenure. It’s best for them to introduce themselves by email or phone, and inquire when I’d like to meet. For me, it often depends on where their organization is in our grant cycle, but their other funders might prefer meeting face-to-face early in the relationship.”
Mary Mulcahy, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“I appreciate the opportunity to grab coffee and discuss how I could be helpful beyond grant support to new executive directors. Timing can depend on the grant cycle, but I definitely would like to meet the new leader before I make a recommendation. If it’s off cycle, I leave it up to them – either now or wait a few months for when they feel they have a better grasp of things.
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

“Outgoing executive directors should ensure that their staff is prepared to brief the incoming E.D. on the details of our relationship, such as deadlines, reporting, and the basics of our last conversation. Many incoming E.D.s come in with strong fundraising backgrounds and know how to use our first conversation to maintain momentum. On the other hand, sometimes things get lost in the shuffle and we see grantees miss reporting and application deadlines because the staff was not given enough guidance to manage the moving parts during the transition.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

On supporting organizations during transitions

“The Meyer Foundation supports grantees experiencing executive transitions, though obviously there are exceptions. Ultimately, pulling funding from an organization when its most vulnerable is completely counter to the way that we think about building grantee capacity. In fact, we have used capacity building grants to support the organization during transition.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

“We typically fund our existing grantees during an executive transition. We are confident in organizations that can outline a process and timeline for a hiring process, but if things seem to be too in flux, we’ll hold the proposal to consider during the next grant cycle when leadership is stabilized. For Cafritz, an executive transition is not the right time for prospective grantees to apply. It is often better to wait until a new leader is in place, and they have been able to put ‘their own mark’ on a funding request.”
– Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“In general, I’m not opposed to supporting a nonprofit during a transition, but it depends on their approach. For a larger, well-staffed organization, I expect that it is probably business as usual – programming stays the same, administration and financial management remain constant.  For a small nonprofit, whose executive director wears many hats, the organization may be less stable.  A well-thought out succession plan supports how the board leads through the transition, and assists my case for sustained funding.”
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

The Meyer Foundation, established in 1944 by Eugene Meyer, an owner and publisher of The Washington Post, and his wife, the author and social activist Agnes E. Meyer, is one of the Washington area’s oldest and largest locally-focused philanthropies. The Foundation’s mission is to pursue and invest in solutions that build an equitable Greater Washington community in which economically disadvantaged people thrive.

The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation is the largest private, independent, local foundation focused exclusively on the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The Foundation is committed to improving the quality of life for residents of the Washington, DC area.

SARC Consulting, founded in 2000, advises foundations on philanthropic investment by assisting clients with long-term planning, grantmaking and program research. SARC provides short-term and project-based assistance for some clients while also serving as quasi-staff in an ongoing long-term relationship with others. SARC helps clients launch new philanthropic ventures and provides continuing support for long-established foundations

Carlyn MaddenPreparing for your nonprofit’s next executive transition? Carlyn is offering Elevate clients a free phone consultation to help plan your next steps – from succession planning to promising recruitment practices. Learn more about her work at