Are you ready for the Leadership Shift?

Several Canadian studies have been released over the last the last decade predicting a wave of senior leadership retirements in the non-profit sector (see related resources at end). Peel Leadership Centre (PLC) asked us to analyze the data from their first survey of regional non-profit Executive Directors (ED) in the fall of 2013. The Peel Region numbers paint a clear picture of the change to come: more than 50% of EDs plan to leave their roles in the next 1-4 years. By comparison, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) found that 60% of leaders plan to leave their current role in the next 5 years (2013); and the HR Council of Canada reported that on a national level the number is 55% (2012). When it comes to change readiness, the numbers are even more disconcerting: only 27% of the Peel Region organizations surveyed reported having a succession plan in place.

This data is not new, but the time horizon for this huge leadership shift looms nearer. The 2008 economic downturn has led some leaders in the non-profit and for-profit sectors to delay retirement. Despite this reprieve, it appears few non-profit organizations and boards have engaged in productive conversations about the larger challenges and opportunities that this shift will bring.

Leadership TransitionThe loss of the collective wisdom of retirees over the next 5 years cannot be underestimated. Although some EDs who founded their organizations learned on the job, many long-standing EDs benefitted from professional development programs that were available. Today there are fewer opportunities for leadership development. One promising finding in the PLC survey was that many experienced leaders are mentoring their staff as well as newer EDs. In a recent meeting of supportive housing sector leaders, one newer ED commented how concerned she was about the impending retirement of mentors she has relied on since assuming her role.

The article “Exit Agreements for nonprofit CEOs” (see related resources below) highlights how one organization retained some of this knowledge and expertise by contracting with their former ED to stay involved as a part-time grant-writer after retirement. This arrangement was borne in part out of necessity – their dedicated ED was not financially able to retire after working many years on a low salary without a pension plan. Analysis of the PLC survey data found that many outgoing EDs predict their organizations will need to increase salaries and redesign their role to recruit a successor.

What then, are the opportunities for organizations in this transition? In parallel with the impending leadership transition, a variety of forces are driving change in the non-profit sector. In today’s lean economic times, the models under which many organizations have operated are no longer viable. Funders expect organizations to find efficiencies, deliver evidence-based services, demonstrate impact, engage externally with a range of stakeholders, and act as part of a larger system.

Questions for LeadersThese changes require thinking and acting differently on multiple levels – from how services are designed and delivered, to how charitable work is funded. Organizations need to be nimble and adaptable. This environment demands innovation and an ability to do and lead differently; to collaborate across sectors; and to share leadership internally and externally. A leadership transition is an opportunity to position the organization for this changing environment.

Many studies have pointed to the different values and expectations those from different generations bring to the workplace. Younger generations seek values alignment in their work, opportunities to make a difference, flexibility and greater work-life balance compared to their parents. Both the PLC and ONN survey findings revealed that these interests conflict with the way non-profit leadership roles are currently defined.

Ernst and Young’s (EY) 2013 survey of 1200 professionals in the US highlights some perceived generational strengths and weaknesses of leaders in the workplace. It will be of interest to those developing and recruiting future leaders:EY Generational Differences of Leaders

A Transition Toolbox                                                                                                         EDs and boards both have work to do to prepare and facilitate a smooth leadership transition – key tools include:

  • A succession plan – for the sudden or planned departure of your organization’s leader
  • An exit agreement – that enables your ED to retire at a time that is right for him/her and the organization
  • A development plan – for middle level managers to develop their leadership skills by giving them responsibility for some of the areas that EDs currently fulfill
  • A redesigned ED role – that recognizes and promotes shared leadership; the need for more external, system-level work; and the value of work-life balance

Related resources

  1. “Building leaderful organizations – Succession planning for nonprofits” Executive Transition Monograph Series, Volume 6, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2008.
  2. “Driving change: A national study of Canadian nonprofit executive leaders, The HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector, 2012.
  3. “Exit Agreements for Nonprofit CEOs: A Guide for Boards and Executives”, by Tome Adams, Melanie Herman and Tim Wolfred, Nonprofit Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2013
  4. “Next generation leaders: What they want and need from the workplace” by Terri Klass, Judy Lindenberger and Jean-Baptiste Marchais. Nonprofit Quarterly online July 19, 2011.
  5.  “Shaping the Future: Leadership in Ontario’s Nonprofit Labour Force – Summary of Findings” Prepared by Elizabeth McIsaac, Stella Park, Lynne Toupin for The Ontario Nonprofit Network and the Mowat Centre, University of Toronto.
  6.  “Who’s Leading Non-profits in Peel Region? A Snapshot of Executive Directors – 2013 ED Survey” prepared by Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong for Peel Leadership Centre, September 2013.
  7. “Executive summary: Younger managers rise in the ranks” EY Survey, September 2013.

Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong, VISION Management Services

Social Media for Non-profits – Five Good Ideas

I attended Maytree’s Five Good Ideas session on social media for non-profits in mid-October. Presenter Bhupesh Shah of Seneca College and ethnicomm inc. shared his thoughts on how non-profits can leverage the power of social media in their work.

Bhupesh Shah’s Five Good Ideas:

  1. Don’t be afraid to open up.
  2. Think like a for-profit.
  3. Offer value to your stakeholders by curating and sharing relevant information.
  4. Look out the window.
  5. Develop a social media strategy before dipping your toe in the water.

He addressed some common organizational concerns and outlined some interesting examples of how new tools are being used. Shah also introduced a variety of mostly free resources organizations can use to expand their presence and manage their social media activity.

Maytree has posted his half-hour presentation online ( The presentation is worth a watch for organizations that are thinking about how best to use social media, or for those who are in the process of developing a social media strategy.

It was the first time I’d managed to get to one of the Good Ideas sessions and I liked the format. The lunchtime session included an informative presentation, small group discussion, followed by a plenary Q&A (and food!). There was an interesting mix of participants, which made for good conversation. So if the topic is of interest to your organization – I recommend you go. You can sign up to be notified about future sessions:


Join me at the Tools 2012 Conference

Iler Campbell and Prentice Yates & Clark are once again sponsoring their one-day Tools conference for staff and board members from non-profits, charities, co-ops and community groups. The law and accounting firms are committed to providing participants (many of whom are client agencies) with an opportunity to learn from experts on a variety of topics and exchange information with each other.

Over the years, I have presented on different topics at the conference. The audience tends to be diverse, friendly and open to learning. It’s been a great way for individuals to refresh their thinking by getting exposed to practical information and training. Participants also enjoy the opportunity to connect with others from their own and other fields.

This year I am presenting a session on:

Shared and Separated Leadership between Board and ED: Navigating the boundary                                                                                                                     We continue to debate and describe the boundary between the board and the executive director in different ways: oversight vs. operational, direction vs. implementation, policy vs. practice. The general principles are easy to state but challenging to honour. The session will focus on practical strategies for establishing the right conditions, addressing the inevitable tensions and making the Board-ED relationship work.

At the Tools Conference this year there are 12 workshops (you choose four when you register) and an inspiring keynote speaker who will share stories and strategies for engaging youth. Cost of $180 per person includes breakfast, lunch and great networking at the end-of-day reception.

The one-day conference is being held at Oakham House on the Ryerson University campus in downtown Toronto on November 22, 2012. Check it out!

Hope to see you there – Ruth.

Questions for leaders:

  • What does it take to engage in shared leadership while respecting the separate duties and responsibilities of Board and ED?
  • How do we navigate a fuzzy boundary that shifts in different circumstances (e.g. new ED, mature organization, small agency)?

Toward Participatory Governance? Launch of a Solutions Lab at MaRS in partnership with the Ontario government

The Ontario government has partnered with MaRS to launch a ‘Solutions Lab’. Assistant Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Katherine Hewson, at the ONN Conference in September 2012, noted that part of the intention of such an initiative is to put clients at the centre of government services.

This signals a shift toward a more participatory approach to governance. Social Innovation Labs like this have been implemented in other countries to change the way public policy and/or public services are developed; SiG at Waterloo provides a helpful description. It’s about the co-creation of solutions WITH citizens.

Christian Bason, of MindLab in Denmark, presented on MindLab’s innovation work within the Danish government at MaRS in June 2011. It was a compelling story – you can view his presentation here: Bason noted he was also in Canada to meet with the Ontario government to share his experience with them… apparently they liked what they heard. Bason’s book, Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society is a great source of practical advice on how to apply design principles and work with end-users to develop innovative and impactful solutions to social problems.

Participatory governance and co-creation of solutions have applications for organizations and the way they govern and do their work. In terms of governance, this involves engaging the communities served in the decision-making of your organization. For organizations serving marginalized populations or youth, this may require the provision of support in the form of education, mentorship and changing the way the board engages in and beyond the boardroom. Creating an environment that is comfortable for those who could otherwise be intimidated means ensuring they are not a singular voice, and actively encouraging them to share their perspectives on different issues. Engaging this diversity at a governance level will lead to richer discussions and different decisions.

A number of marginalized groups have adopted the term ‘nothing about us without us’ – and this speaks to their interest in participating more actively in shaping decisions about services. Beyond governance, engaging those you serve in the design and evaluation of your services is another path to greater participation and innovation.

Ruth and Sandi


  • Why might your board, staff, community and clients get excited about a more participatory approach to governance and/or program design?
  • How could a more participatory approach lead to greater innovation?
  • What could your board do differently to share decision making more widely?