What We Learned — Executive Transitions
In the Fall of 2020, Veatch commissioned racial justice activist and movement leader Rinku Sen to help survey and conduct focus groups with our grantees to learn about their experiences during moments of leadership transitions in their organizations. Of our 190 grantees, 116 completed the survey, and 23 participated in one of five focus groups to talk in greater detail about their experiences. Below is a summary of what we learned:
Grantees led by women and/or people of color were more likely to face scrutiny or receive less support than their white male counterparts.
Even in the best-case scenarios, recruiting, vetting, and onboarding a new executive director for social justice organizations is a logistically and emotionally fraught process. But Veatch grantees tell us the process is often rife with financial complications, too. In our interviews and surveys with the directors of Veatch grantees, we learned that 37.5% of new executive directors experienced non-renewals, decreases or delays in funding within their first two years in the position. The situation was similar for 31% of new directors who identify as women of color, and 30% for white women.Notably, none of the grantees led by white men reported experiencing non-renewals, decreases or delays in funding upon assuming leadership. It is relevant to note that this group was the smallest in our sample, representing just 9.5% of total respondents.
These financial difficulties have an obvious impact on organizations during a sensitive time of transition — they force new directors to delay growth, for instance, or cut programs and staff. In our focus groups, grantees described the impact this reality can have on them as they are trying to adjust to their new leadership role. As one grantee told us:
It's eighteen months to two years before you feel like you have your hands fully around the job and know what you need to be focusing on. And when you're pairing that on-the-job learning with a difficult financial situation, it is just incredibly stressful. So more can be done to help provide transitional funding that lasts a little longer than what most people are thinking.
Grantees told us that funders cite several reasons for decreased support for social justice organizations during transitions. Some of these reasons, which may reinforce bias against leaders who are women and people of color, include:
"Wait and see": The most common reason (57%) that funders gave men of color executive directors for delaying, decreasing, or stopping funding was that they wanted to “wait and see” how the organization would do with the new leadership. The same response was given to over one-third of women of color and one-quarter of white women.
"Priority shift": Close to 60% of women of color executive directors and around 40% of both white women and men of color were affected by funders’ priority shifts in their first year on the job.
"Don't fund during transitions": Close to 30% of men of color directors and more than 10% of all women directors were told by a funder that they don’t fund during transitions as the reason to decrease or cut their grants. One grantee told us they are reluctant to be transparent with their funders for precisely this reason:
I don't even want to say that we’re headed toward a transition because there are foundations who will say, ‘Hey, who knows what's going to happen, who's going to come in there next, and am I going to have a relationship? Am I going to like this person? So I'm going to need some time with whoever succeeds me to transfer those relationships.
Need "more of a relationship" with the new executive director before funding: Similarly, many grantees told us that some funders place a heavier emphasis on the personality of the executive directors they fund than the organizations they work for. Over 40% of directors who are men of color, 18% who are women of color, and 13% who are white women were told by funders that the funder had a good relationship with the former directors, but that they were not familiar enough with the new one — and wanted to have more of a relationship with them before supporting them. This funding approach, which was only expressed to new directors of Veatch organizations who are women and/or people of color, can adversely impact the work of grantees seeking to build an organizational infrastructure that is not overly dependent on one person or charismatic leader. And the impact of these funding decisions can unintentionally reinforce implicit biases in favor of traditional leadership — namely, white men.
Our grantees say they need more than just their finances to remain steady during a transition — they need technical assistance, additional financial support, and leadership development for the transition itself.
While 37.5% of our grantees experienced financial difficulties within the first and second years of assuming leadership, the majority of our grantees (62.5%) fortunately told us that their funding levels held steady during these years. (In fact, quite a few of our grantees led by men, regardless of race, saw their funding levels increase during their first years on the job.)
While steady funding levels is certainly preferable to a decrease or delay in funding, the reality is that executive director transitions, when done thoroughly and with the least amount of impact on a social justice organization’s programmatic work, require time and resources. In focus groups, directors noted that social justice organizations could benefit from extra support during these vulnerable transition periods. In one focus group, a grantee told us they were so concerned with maintaining funding levels for the organization after assuming the director role that they didn’t have the capacity to seek out the training and support they knew they needed to lead effectively:
Within four to six months, I knew where I had weaknesses, and the truth was I had more than one. I'm just being honest here — I couldn't get all the training at one time.
Long-term, general operating support — the backbone of Veatch’s funding model — can help prevent disruptions to social justice organizations during sensitive times of transition.
What we've learned from grantees during this process confirm that the leaders of social justice organizations, particularly those led by women and people of color, lack the support they need to succeed during vulnerable executive director transitions. Many leaders liken the first years after assuming leadership as “lost” — time spent recuperating funding, building skills, and seeking technical assistance rather than on maintaining or expanding the organization’s programs. This is why Veatch is committed to providing general support to our grantees. To learn more, click here.
To read more about our methodology, and see our full findings, click here.