What We Learned — Executive Transitions

Below is a summary of what Veatch has learned through our survey and focus groups with Veatch grantees: 
Grantees led by women and people of color often struggle financially during executive director transitions.

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 many experienced financial hardships during the first few years of assuming leadership — and it’s clear that leaders who are women or people of color are disproportionately impacted. Notably, while quite a few of our grantees led by women and people of color experienced a financial hardship during a transition, none of the 11 grantees led by white men who responded to our survey did so. 

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 18 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 like learning on the job with a difficult financial situation, it is just incredibly stressful. And so the more that can be done to help provide that transitional funding, that probably lasts a little longer than what most people are thinking.”

Funders cite several reasons for decreased support for social justice organizations during transitions — some of these reasons may reinforce bias against leaders who are women and people of color. 

The reasons grantees say they are given by funders for a decrease in funding are varied. Many funders, our grantees told us, simply don’t fund during moments of organizational transition — or that they wanted to “wait and see” how the organization fares under new leadership. 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.” 

Similarly, many grantees told us that funders place a heavier emphasis on the personality of the executive directors they fund than the organizations they work for. These attitudes, though understandable, can adversely impact the work of grantees seeking to build an organizational infrastructure that is not overly dependent on one person or charismatic leader. Since financial hardships are more common among grantees led by women and people of color, these policies may also be reinforcing unintentional or 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 many of our grantees experienced financial difficulties within the first and second years of assuming leadership, the majority of our grantees 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 a focus group, one 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. And so I couldn't, I'm just being honest here, couldn't get all the training, 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. 

The results of this research confirm what Veatch staff suspected, and that Veatch grantees have long known to be true through their lived experience: that 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. 

To read more about Veatch's plans to address these issues with Executive transitions, Click here.  To return to the "Executive Transition" main page, click here