Thriving Through Change at the Top

At some point in our careers, it is inevitable that we will experience a leadership change. As a Director of Development, how you handle that change is crucial to your success.

Understandably, leadership changes bring unsettling times for development directors: the leader of your organization is your most important relationship. Your President or Director is your partner and, we hope, your biggest supporter in every way—championing your office’s work and actively participating in fundraising. So not knowing who that next person may be and how they view fundraising sets off a range of emotions—from the excitement around the opportunity to terror about your job security. Fear of the unknown sets in.

So what do you do when there is change at the top? Take control of the situation. For success, you must be:

  1. Prepared
  2. Proactive
  3. Partner

Prepared: As soon as your Director or President announces she is leaving, start preparing. You will want to have all of your important fundraising statistics at your fingertips from the beginning: headhunters may need fundraising information for the job descriptions, and you may be lucky enough to be part of the interview process so will want to go armed with information. Most importantly, when your new boss starts, you will want to be ready. Begin gathering documents such as high-level executive summaries of your annual fundraising programs, your strategic plan, research profiles on the institution’s top donors and prospects (you will want to limit these depending on the size of your organization), as well as recent past successes and upcoming challenges you see. She will need to review donor lists to indicate individuals she already knows, and have an understanding of what the key fundraising priorities have been. Expect her to ask questions. Be prepared to arm her with whatever information she feels she needs to understand fundraising at your organization.

Proactive: As soon as your new boss starts at the organization, be proactive and reach out to begin scheduling regular one-on-one meetings. Set up meetings to introduce her to key donors right away, and provide her with a list of key upcoming events at which her attendance would be important. Ask her to visit the Development Office so she feels a sense of connection with the team and the office. She needs to know from the outset that 1) you have a strong team in place that has demonstrated successful results 2) you are a partner ready to support her as she begins her job as chief fundraiser.

Partner: Every new leader wants to blaze their own trail. Particularly today, leaders know that their Presidency will be judged in large part on the funds they raise. Expect some sensitivity and a desire to put their own stamp on how they go about fundraising. That’s why it is important to demonstrate immediately that you are a partner in this work, there to support her efforts in every way. Be flexible and open, listening to your new leader’s perspective and ideas, rather than just talking at her about institutional history. In other words, treat her like your most important donor and listen. The last thing someone new wants to hear is “The last President did it like this…” or “this is the way we have always done it.” Look at the leadership change as an opportunity to view your fundraising program through a new lens and perhaps to instill some fresh thinking into your team. Enthusiastically collaborate with your new leader on implementing change.

Being well-prepared, proactive, and a true partner during this transitional time will not only boost your confidence, it may make the difference in building a trusted relationship with your new leader.

 If your organization needs help preparing for and managing leadership change, contact Senior Vice President Chris Begley at 646-552-6507 or cbegley@grenzglier.com. GG+A can provide one-on-one or group coaching to staff and board members.

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About the author

Chris Begley

Senior Vice President

Chris Begley, Senior Vice President, has spent her career advancing prestigious arts institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Academy in Rome. She is currently Senior Advisor to the Director at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. Chris joined GG+A to bring her deep experience to…