OMG – She/He is Leaving! How to Handle Key Staff Departures

by David Norgard

"The board meetings just won't be the same without you..."

First, a story from a friend and colleague, David Cupps…

David Cupps currently serves on two boards of directors. One organization is a national advocacy group; the other is a local musical group. By coincidence, each board was informed of the departure of a key staff member within days of each other.

In the case of the advocacy group, it was the administrator who was leaving after more than a decade of extraordinary service. He had done so much for so long with so little that it was hard to imagine moving forward without him. Likewise with the music group: in that case, it was the artistic director, and music ensembles need their direction.

So what does a board – and executive director – do? What should they do?

Wringing hands in quiet despair and watching the descent into chaos with a piteous gaze is probably not the most helpful response. What David has been learning from these two similar situations, he recounts below:

  1. Remain calm. Your attitude will be contagious for good or ill, so act like you want your members/constituents to act.
  2. Quickly inform other leaders. They will appreciate being on the “inside track,” and you will need their help and solidarity.
  3. Make a plan and let people know. People will be glad to know you are doing something about the situation and will feel relieved. This is a good idea even if your plans change later!
  4. Communicate – even to the point of over-communicating. People begin to panic if they do not know what is happening. Do not worry about repeating yourself. Often people miss the first message, skim the second one, and misunderstand the third one.
  5. Revise your plan as necessary. Don’t let your plan become outdated. You will need a common understanding with your fellow leaders and a current road map is the easiest way to stay on task.

My friend David Cupps and I have led parallel lives lately in the respect that we both have had to deal with unexpected departures. In my case, it was a university development officer. She had done great work and then she was gone. I feared that alumni relations would grind to a halt – or worse – regress. Tempted to succumb to the hand-wringing option, I reviewed what I teach in supervisory training classes and workshops. (It is often said and often true: We learn ourselves by teaching others.)

In managing staff, it is a given that good people will both come and go. Nowadays, the long tenure of a great staff member is the increasingly rare exception.

Aware of this reality, we can take one of two approaches.

We can ignore it and – a little like Claude Rains in “Casablanca” – be shocked to find it going on in our establishment. Or, we can expect it and be prepared… But that begs the question. How does one become prepared and, for that matter, stay prepared? Is there some emergency protocol to put in a binder for when this type of “crisis” strikes? Is there some kit to buy and mount on the wall?

In a word, no. However, there is a long-term strategy – rather counter-intuitive on first reading – which sets the stage for smoother transitions. As a friend and colleague once put it, we need to think these days just as much about “getting the people done through work” as about “getting the work done through people.”

In other words, we need to value professional development and not just productivity.

People who work put forth effort that results in individual performance. This leads to results for the organization; it also needs to lead to rewards for the individual.

Part of the equation, of course, is compensation and benefits. Yet equally valued in the workforce today is the opportunity for professional development. In small and medium sized nonprofits, there are often few, if any, opportunities for professional advancement… but there are many possibilities for learning skills, acquiring knowledge, making contacts, and engaging in creative processes.

The short view of facilitating professional development is that a person will grow into greater capability, only to desire something greater and eventually leave. That will probably happen anyway. People come and go.

But when the person who has been “developed” leaves, what is left behind is a legacy of caring about staff and a commitment to excellence… and what is carried into the world is an enduring respect for and appreciation of your organization.


In addition to being an Associate Faculty member in the M.A. in Organizational Management Program of Antioch University Los Angeles, David Norgard is the founder of OD180, a consulting firm that develops strategies for nonprofit organizations. He has also held leadership roles on various nonprofit boards and committees. At present, he serves as the President of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy group. A graduate of AULA’s M.A. in Organizational Management program, David currently serves as Chair of AULA’s Alumni & Community Advisory Board. He also holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Augsburg College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, where he received a Dean’s Citation for Community Service and an Award of Distinction among Alumni.