Beyond the Glass Cliff: Reimagining Executive Transitions in the Sector

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Beyond the Glass Cliff: Reimagining Executive Transitions in the Sector 
By: Monika Kalra Varma, BoardSource, CEO & President

“I joined BoardSource grounded in a vision for what I hope the nonprofit ecosystem will be one day – a place our society will look to for innovation, creativity, compassion, equity, inclusivity, and justice. I envision the communities that nonprofits partner with driving the strategies most needed to achieve their social change goals. Who serves on boards and how they govern are critical to making this a reality. I am here to work with all of you – and many who are not yet part of our BoardSource community – to reach that vision.” - Excerpt from Monika’s Letter to the nonprofit community

The nonprofit ecosystem is currently experiencing a series of leadership transitions, with many historically white-led organizations, including BoardSource, transitioning to BIPOC executives. Each leader brings their own vision for the organization and sector they are operating in. On my best days, I am full of hope for what these new leaders and their visions will do to transform some of the most entrenched problems in our communities and country. On other days, I am filled with worry because the “Glass Cliff” — a phenomenon describing the challenging position BIPOC leaders find themselves in when following outgoing white leaders — is real. The Building Movement Project has documented the countless seen and unseen challenges that can hinder our ability to succeed in these roles. I have personally experienced these challenges in my previous positions and hear stories, almost on a daily basis, of the ways nonprofit executives of color are kept from carrying out their visions and work.

As BoardSource’s first BIPOC leader, I sit in a unique position to benefit from a transition process that was intentionally designed to support my success. Our organization is committed to supporting the broader ecosystem during transition and transformation. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Philanthropy New York’s Leadership Transitions Funders Group and shared my thoughts on how nonprofit boards and funders can support these transitions. I share those ideas here and welcome your feedback and reactions - as well as the other tools you are employing to support leadership transitions.

A Board’s Role in Executive Transition

As I navigate through my own executive transition at BoardSource, I’ve been reflecting on all of the stages of a transition: before, during, after the leader is hired. During a recent BoardSource Fireside Chat with transition committee chair, Kevin Walker, we shared an overview of our transition process, including my experience as a BIPOC candidate and Kevin’s role as a transition committee chair. We also shared some valuable insights on what made our process unique from other searches I have participated in. 

The board’s intention was to avoid the Glass Cliff, and what they did - and continue to do - is create the conditions and environment that enable me to lead the organization through transformation. Over the last couple of years, BoardSource has been centering Purpose-Driven Board Leadership as a pathway to enhance our sector. By hiring me, they centered purpose and asked themselves, not what our organization needed, but what the nonprofit ecosystem needed. Like me, many BIPOC leaders are brought in as the face of change, and in intentional searches, it is the manifestation of a longer journey of rethinking an organization’s purpose. We bring different connections to the community, experiences, expertise, and leadership. When the waves of BIPOC leaders who are joining organizations experience intentional and thoughtful transitions, our organizations and sector have an incredible opportunity to better realize their missions and purpose.

How Philanthropies can Support Executive Transition

Philanthropy plays a critical role in the success of leadership transitions that work to avoid the Glass Cliff. Here are four ways philanthropies can shift how they think of executive transitions and support BIPOC leaders.

1. Approach leadership transitions as multi-year processes.

Our sector often believes that a leadership transition is complete when a new leader joins an organization or in some cases when they’ve crossed the ninety-day mark. The reality is that transitions often last for a minimum of one year with experienced executives and several years for first-time CEOs who continue to face many “firsts” throughout that time. Funding and support throughout the transition period would be a game-changer for leaders and the broader sector. 

2. Partner with leaders and work to understand their vision and the challenges they have in realizing it. Support them in reaching their goals.

Transformational change is a complex and often difficult process. It requires experimentation, navigating the many challenges of a change management process, and the time and space to imagine and refine that vision. Philanthropy can stand in the way of that creativity if the sector relies on quick victories and arbitrary metrics as a measure of success. Instead, following the principles of Trust-Based Philanthropy can make room for innovation and impact. 

3. Build strong relationships and act as a connector to support their leadership, including introducing them to funders and other key stakeholders. 

Another way to support the sector is by identifying organizations in your ecosystem who may be going through a leadership transition, particularly with leaders of color who are in potential Glass Cliff situations. Ask them what they need to succeed. If you’re unable to provide funding, think about other funders who might be able to support them and facilitate those introductions. Similarly, connect incoming CEOs with each other. The role of a CEO can be isolating - when we connect with others going through similar challenges, we find new and creative solutions - and personal support.

4. Invest in DEIJ work internally and externally. 

BoardSource’s board and staff were on a deep and authentic DEIJ journey that started four years before our former CEO announced her plans to leave. This was evident in every part of my hiring process - from the way interviews were conducted, to the selection of an equity-focused search firm and structuring a transition committee that continues to support me through my first year.

Funders can and should invest in their grantees’ DEIJ work to lay the foundation for leadership transitions. However, this action alone can only go so far. To better support BIPOC leaders and organizations on their race equity journey, funders should join us by committing to a journey of their own. Funders who commit to their own organizations’ DEIJ journey know first-hand that authentic race equity work is complex, messy, and a lengthy process. By engaging with BIPOC-led organizations, they gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities of these transitions and become more effective partners.

I invite you all to initiate these conversations with your grantee organizations and recognize that this is a learning journey for us all in the sector. BoardSource is committed to learning and growing together. Through conversations, webinars, and written pieces, we will be sharing resources and guidance for boards, current and future nonprofit executives, and foundations to better support these transitions. Join us as we reimagine our sector from a place of opportunity.