How To Successfully Approach A Nonprofit Takeover

Takeovers are something we often hear about in the for-profit world. Yet, it also happens in the nonprofit world, and we need to be prepared for how to handle it.

Recently, a colleague of mine was asked to lead a nonprofit where there had been a recent exit. She will be a new executive director, brought in by the board, with a team she’s never met before. This is a very interesting situation — it’s essentially a “corporate takeover.” Or, rather, this is a “nonprofit” or “social enterprise takeover.” The board has brought in someone new.

This is indeed a sensitive situation. What should one do? Well, one of the greatest ways to start any new relationship is the big “L” word. You might think this is “love,” but in this case, I’m referring to “listening.” Here are some of the recommendations I gave my colleague as she starts her new position.

1. Explain that you are on a ‘listening journey.’

Tell your new team that, for the first month (perhaps two, depending on the cultural situation), you are there to listen. During this time, you won’t make any decisions but simply listen to other people’s stories. You can also bring the team together to share your own motivations, background and desire to serve.

The goal here is to let team members know you want to learn their story and that your journey as a leader will be based on their experiences. Additionally, you take away any fear by telling them you’re not planning on making decisions for this first month, but that you’re simply going to listen.

2. Set up one-on-one conversations.

My colleague suggested this idea, and it’s a great one. Sit down one-on-one with each team member to hear about what their experience has been like. To do this appropriately, you’ll want to set the tone: These are not to be “rag” sessions. Let team members know that the focus is primarily on the positives and what they like about the organization. Then, discuss areas they would like to change. This way, you have them start with the positives rather than the negatives.

This is a great way for people to share their stories, remember why they joined the organization in the first place and get reconnected in their hearts.

3. Lead a group meeting.

Next, make it clear publicly within the organization that you appreciate all that the team has shared. You are going to provide an official report to the board; therefore, ask them to provide, via email or on paper, all the areas they believe are positive and serve as the organization’s strengths. They should also report on the positives of their individual jobs and what they like about them.

Then, have them state two areas that they’d like to change and one thing they’d like to see the organization stop doing entirely. This allows them to feel that they have influence over the organization’s future and direction.

4. Present and prioritize to the board. 

Condense the information gathered from employees, and present it to the board. Take some time to think about it and discuss it with the board. Are people generally happy that there’s a leadership transition? Are they happy with their positions and the mission of the organization?

Report any challenges and any areas that need to be addressed. If there are more challenges than anything, you’ll need to report that to the board. After a board discussion, and with board agreement, prioritize the issues, and prepare a report for the team.

5. Host another team meeting.

Once you feel you’ve calibrated the situation and have clear agreement from the board on next steps, bring everyone together for another team meeting. By making it public, you are ensuring that the whole team has heard your incentive to drive change, with their influence. During this presentation, share the positives that the team mentioned. This instills a positive culture. Then, share the challenges and what the action plan is.

Sometimes human nature tends to jump to the negatives, and that’s never a healthy thing. Starting with the positives preps our minds to receive information more positively. A positive environment starts with our minds, not just our physical environments.

Present all changes with a focus on why they will benefit the organization and why they will benefit each individual professionally. It’s important to make things relevant from a macro success viewpoint as well as a personal standpoint. After all, everyone wants to know how change affects them.

6. Conduct quarterly surveys.

Now, keep up the process. You have one-on-ones, group meetings and board involvement. To create a more anonymous process, consider conducting employee surveys. These surveys should be short and concise, with questions mirroring the questions asked in your team meetings. Present this survey quarterly, so you can continuously measure progress and transparency.

7. Repeat the process and enjoy it.

This is what happens when you take over a nonprofit. These initial steps help build a strong culture during a time of change and ensure that everyone will feel good about the situation and continue contributing. Does it take a lot of effort? You bet. But what success in life doesn’t take effort? What success in life doesn’t take time? We have to work hard to see the standards of excellence we hope to see.

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