Seven Days

Search and Replace: Hiring New Nonprofit Leaders Isn't Easy

Molly Walsh Jul 18, 2018 10:00 AM
Thomas James

Gil Livingston spent more than a quarter century working at the Vermont Land Trust: one year as legal counsel, 16 as manager of land conservation, 10 as president. During his tenure, the Montpelier-based organization protected 350,000 acres across the state. Livingston shepherded countless projects, from saving backcountry ski terrain in Bolton to creating a 12-acre park at Burlington's Cambrian Rise.

When last year he announced plans to leave, Livingston said he would not be involved in the search for his replacement. But he had trouble keeping out of it.

"I confess that I'm a control freak. And so my desire for being involved was very high," said Livingston. "You want to help shape how the organization goes forward, but frankly it's a board decision."

Leadership transition at nonprofits can be difficult, especially if the person stepping down has become synonymous with the organization's mission. The individual at the helm plays a critical role in branding the nonprofit, building confidence that it is doing good work and managing donations responsibly. A change at the top can trigger a switch in public perception. It can also be disruptive inside the organization if a new executive director introduces a different management style or approach to fundraising.

It beats the alternative, though. Founders don't live forever. Nonprofits that don't plan for succession may jeopardize their survival. To avoid that, many of Vermont's most iconic leaders are passing the baton to a new generation — or at least thinking about it.

Consultant Debra Howard of Hinesburg, who works with both nonprofit and for-profit executives and boards, said it's hard to convince anyone to step away from his or her life's work. It's common for leaders, especially founders, to "have mixed feelings about retirement," she said. "They worry about whether the organization will do well without them."

Also: "People don't like to think about getting older ... about difficult transitions like that."

When it finally happens, though, Howard recommends cutting the cord completely to instill confidence "that the organization is strong enough to thrive once that leader steps down." She explained: "It's not an easy thing to do, and a lot of leaders don't do it very well."

The best transitions are made when executives decide well in advance what their departure date will be "and they start working with their board and make sure they have strong leadership ... to be able to manage that succession and run a strong search to find a successor," Howard said.

Then the executive should get out of the way, especially when it comes to the search itself. "If you are the outgoing person, you need to start letting go," Howard said.

In the case of the Vermont Land Trust, the board hired a consultant and conducted a national search. Livingston offered advice on the list of candidates at the board's request but noted wryly that it wasn't uniformly accepted. "They actually interviewed people who I did not recommend," he said.

Ultimately, the board hired an internal candidate, Nick Richardson, a vice president with a strong financial background. Although Livingston was a mentor while they worked together, Richardson said he never felt "anointed" and fully expected to face a competitive field of contenders. Livingston had no vote but enthusiastically supported the decision. The former executive director did not stay on the board — a common practice that Howard strongly discourages — and has made a clean break from the organization.

As Livingston put it: "Nick deserves full autonomy without some shadow following him around."

In 2016, the Vermont Land Trust had revenue of $12.2 million and assets of $46.2 million, according to the trust's Internal Revenue Service Form 990. Livingston's total compensation was $154,124.

Now that he's in the top job, Richardson said he's exploring new directions beyond conservation of farms and forestland. For example, he wants to further develop a land trust program to encourage young farmers to take over operations from those retiring or selling out.

Richardson, who is 40, was significantly younger than most of the candidates for his job. Noting that age "describes but does not define him," he counts himself in an emerging group of Vermont nonprofit leaders in their thirties or early forties.

"I feel like there's a group of younger folks who are being given the opportunity to step into leadership in organizations throughout Vermont," Richardson said. "As one of those folks, it's really exciting to have a cohort of people that I can connect with."

They include Jared Duval, who came on last year as executive director of the Energy Action Network in Montpelier; Shelby Semmes, hired this year as the Vermont/New Hampshire state program director for the Trust for Public Land in Montpelier; Dan Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Vermont Community Foundation in Middlebury since 2016; and Jesse Bridges, who last year became CEO of the United Way of Northwest Vermont in South Burlington.

Richardson said it's nice to have same-age counterparts with whom he can discuss the ups and downs of leadership. "Having a group of people who are facing a similar set of challenges and responsibilities, who can be sounding boards" is "really helpful," he said.

At the Preservation Trust of Vermont, 71-year-old Paul Bruhn is still in charge, long after many of his contemporaries have retired. He's served as executive director since the Burlington-based organization was founded 38 years ago, helping communities preserve many important historic structures, including ornate theaters and rural general stores. The trust has also played a collaborative role in finding new uses for old buildings, and it has fought key battles against sprawl.

The affable Bruhn has no plans to leave but has worked with his board on a succession plan. Two plans, in fact. "I do feel like most days I have the best job in Vermont," said Bruhn, who has not decided how long he wants to keep working. "I don't really think about it much. I really just think about the work we're doing and being as effective as we possibly can."

The first iteration of Bruhn's succession plan, circa 2003, called for an interim director to lead the organization for up to a year after Bruhn retires, to create some breathing room. The interim director would not be a candidate for the permanent job.

The plan also recognized the need for financial stability so that the organization could be sustained without Bruhn's charisma and connections. To that end, the trust successfully beefed up its endowment from less than $1 million to more than $5 million. It also created special cash reserves: One is to maintain the 115-year-old Grand Isle Lake House, which the nonprofit has owned since 1997; another is for the new director's salary. The goal is to be able to "attract star candidates," said Peter Brink, who has served on the trust's board for 10 years and helped update the succession plan about five years ago.

Bruhn's annual compensation is $153,466, according to the trust's Form 990 filed for the 12 months ending September 30, 2016.

The plan clearly spells out the details of Bruhn's exit: He'd be excluded from the hiring process and future board service. It's an excellent template, Bruhn said.

"I think the board really figured out a very ingenious plan for how to transition from where we are to the next person. And, you know, I think that the next person will do things very differently, probably, than we're doing them now, and that's great.''

It won't be easy to replace Bruhn.

"Obviously, he's a giant," Brink said of Bruhn, calling his tenure "a magnificent run."

What started with one part-time employee — Bruhn — has grown into a $1.8 million operation with two full-time and seven part-time staffers. In 2015, the Preservation Trust of Vermont had $8.5 million in assets.

If Bruhn ever did give notice, Brink suggested, ideally he'd hang around long enough to introduce the new person to the donors and other influential partners he has cultivated over the years: "I think those introductions and the transfer of credibility is really important."

For now, the board remains happy to have Bruhn at the helm, Brink added: "They don't feel that he's heavy handed. They don't feel that he's tired or uncreative. They don't feel that he's holding on. Right now, everybody's in a very good place."

Change is imminent for another longtime director, at the Vermont Humanities Council. After 16 years steering the ship, Peter Gilbert announced earlier this year that he is retiring.

"We're not going to be able to find a new Peter; he's one of a kind," said Ben Doyle, who serves on the board and is heading the search committee for a new director. Gilbert has played a key role in shaping a statewide conversation about the value of the humanities.

"At its broadest, it's about what does it mean to be human, right here and right now, and who are the best thinkers to help us accomplish that," Doyle said. "Our goal is to engage all Vermonters in the world of ideas."

Gilbert, who was on vacation and not available for comment, has been equally comfortable talking on Vermont Public Radio about John Keats, Bob Dylan and D-Day as offering gentle corrections to nervous youngsters when judging the Vermont Scripps Spelling Bee. He was instrumental in moving the organization from its original location in Morrisville to Montpelier, where the council could better position itself for a statewide reach. Gilbert also established the First Wednesdays series that brings lectures on the humanities to communities across Vermont.

Even though the council is well staffed and in good shape financially, "it's a big deal to find somebody who's going to be the face of the organization and guide it forward," said Doyle.

The council hired a New Hampshire consultant to help with recruitment. Board members also interviewed their counterparts at other Vermont nonprofits that have recently gone through leadership transitions, and they held a retreat of their own to reiterate their goals for the organization.

"I'm not going to lie," Doyle said. "It's nerve-racking."

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