Replacing an Iconic Nonprofit Leader

By John Fazekas

A not-for-profit organization is blessed when its executive director or CEO stays for a lengthy tenure. A leader who stays for 10, 15, or even 20 years usually means stability, respect, and success around the mission. If wildly successful or even the founder of the organization, the individual may be deemed an icon.

The challenge arises when, ultimately, that leader decides to step down. Not only are there proverbial “big shoes to fill” atop the organization, but there is little organizational knowledge as to how to recruit a new top executive.

As a search consultant within the not-for-profit sector, I frequently encounter this blessing/curse dynamic when a long-tenured leader exits the stage. Here are some of the questions boards have asked me when an icon announces he or she is stepping down:

Do we recruit someone in the same mold?

No, a clone of the former leader is not the answer. While there are qualities that made the previous CEO successful, the organization has grown, programs have been added, and clients have changed. From a culture perspective, you want a leader who can preserve the values that make the organization a special place. Yet the new CEO will need to develop his or her own credibility and be true to his/her own personality.

Odds are the new CEO will need to navigate a path that is quite different and may require skills and experiences that were not necessary years ago. With increased emphasis on fundraising, more collaborative ventures, and the constraints that come from decreased reimbursements, the new CEO really has to fight for the resources that are necessary to sustain the business. These are priorities that demand a new type of leadership.

Will top candidates want to replace an iconic leader?

Absolutely, especially if the nonprofit has built a recognized brand and is seen as a leader in its space. Even though there may be big shoes to fill, the strongest CEOs are looking for a chance to make an impact, not simply slip into a maintenance role.

That said, organizations underestimate how traumatic it is for staff to see a beloved leader move on. She/he may have been that inspiring leader that initially attracted many employees to the organization or been the glue that kept staff there in tough times. A CEO successor, therefore, must be aware and respectful of what that leader meant to the organization even while new changes are being implemented.

What relationship should the CEO have with the board?

Strong CEOs learn how to form a strong relationship with their boards. Many board members may have joined because of the previous leader and have loyalty to the outgoing regime. The board is putting its faith in this new leader and the staff is trusting the board to hand the reins to the right person. For these reasons, the new CEO must go out of his/her way to forge a strong relationship with the board. The CEO must over-communicate with the board and provide hard data as to why certain actions or changes are needed. There is a real opportunity at the outset of a CEO’s tenure to effect change, but only if the executive’s bond with the board is strong.

Can we afford the new CEO?

It is a competitive market, and finding a leader who can put down roots and drive change requires nonprofits to view this hire as an investment in the future. Often times, boards realize they were getting a great deal in what they were paying a longstanding, iconic leader. While a passion for the mission is hopefully a big part of the new CEO’s DNA, the reality is that this executive will have options and can command a higher salary than the outgoing leader. The board must account for this as it begins the recruitment.


The departure of a long-term, iconic leader can breathe new life into an organization. But this will only happen if the board looks to the future as it selects a new leader, and if the selected CEO acknowledges the past and what the predecessor meant to the organization.