A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, the executive director of California Youth Connection (CYC) abruptly and unexpectedly resigned. There was no succession plan to fill the leadership gap, jeopardizing the organization’s mission to develop young leaders who can transform California’s foster care system. Amidst these challenges, CYC defied the odds by establishing mission-driven partnerships with its staff, funders, and foster youth community.
As a former youth member who was selected to be CYC‘s new executive director, and as a CYC funder and core philanthropic supporter, we saw this executive transition process unfold. We offer our perspectives on what we observed, focusing on how partnerships contributed to CYC’s success.
Initially, staff and youth members felt a rational panic: Would CYC close? How long would a committee of unpaid volunteers (the board) run the statewide nonprofit? Instead of letting such fear overwhelm them, the people who believed in CYC’s mission—including current and former staff, board volunteers, and youth members of the statewide network—refused to give up. Their collective wisdom and skills were integral to the organization’s evolution.
But they needed a way forward. The volunteer board of directors was legally responsible for executive decision making on the organization’s behalf. They called on Robin Allen, a trusted interim leader who worked with the organization in 2016, to move CYC stakeholders’ plan forward. With Allen’s partnership and guidance, CYC formed a transition committee that eventually hired a new executive director.
The Edward W. Hazen Foundation provided funding for CYC to engage youth and community stakeholder voices in the transition process, leading to the creation of a transition committee that consisted of three board members, three staff, and three youth representatives of CYC’s foster youth membership. The committee allowed youth members to have the final say in hiring CYC staff—a new approach to CYC hiring. It was critical for CYC to make the selection process as inclusive as possible, ensuring the future leader would be a good match for the organization’s mission, values, and community.
Steps taken before the hiring process began ensured CYC youth members and staff could collectively define the process’ outcomes. They studied hiring laws, human resource ethics, comparable market compensation, and the demands of building an organizational culture, and they drafted a comprehensive, values-aligned job description for the new executive director. CYC hired a consulting firm to guide this drafting process in order to meet the needs of all CYC stakeholders.
CYC shaped the hiring process in real time. They asked candidates to adapt to the transition committee’s approach to vet candidates’ alignment with the organization’s core values. Youth members scored applicants’ virtual interviews based on their “wish list” of skills and values. For a candidate to advance through the interview process, two votes were required from each of the three groups represented in the transition committee: youth, staff, and board. This gave youth and staff equal power in determining who would lead the organization. While youth members did not always agree, the equitable decision-making framework guided them to respect the outcomes of their deliberations.
Ricardo Ortega, one of the transition committee’s youth members, told us: “We wanted someone who would stay true to what members needed in this next era of CYC.” Youth wanted direct access to the organization’s management and the ability to hold leadership accountable. Following a successful executive hire, the transition committee evolved into the Member Executive Committee, which has a permanent seat at the table of organizational decision-making; it advises and provides recommendations for CYC operational issues and is integral to all hiring processes.
CYC’s transition process was remarkable because it involved the building of a system that includes youth voices among its three principal constituencies and honors their perspectives. Foster youth have always been CYC’s movers and shakers. Bold and unafraid of change, they are building CYC’s capacity to achieve tangible policy changes that benefit foster youth across California. They guide CYC toward a future shaped by their policy recommendations, where foster youth have ownership of their destiny.
In light of CYC’s success during a challenging time, we offer some ways that your organization can prepare for a leadership transition:
- Create a leadership succession plan before you need it. You do not want to be caught by surprise.
- Empower community stakeholders to co-design a successful transition process. Make community voices integral to the process.
- Build sufficient time for community and staff to vet candidates and choose the person they trust to be committed and accountable to the organization’s mission.
- Ask funders for succession planning resources to use before, during, and after the transition. Such resources could include organizational development, capacity-building discretionary funds, or resources for a trusted facilitator.
- Seize the opportunity to operationalize new practices that affirm core organizational values during the transition phase and after.
The Hazen Foundation funded CYC during their executive leadership transition, providing CYC with multiple types of grants to support different aspects of CYC’s process, including:
- Discretionary“opportunity” funds to stipend foster youth engaged in the planning and decision-making process—This stipend increased equity in the process; CYC was able to pay youth, allowing young people with limited financial resources to participate in the transition process and affirming that the organization recognizes the value of their time, energy, and contributions.
- Three years of general operating funds approved by Hazen’s trustees for CYC’s core operations—CYC used their discretion over these funds to invest in improved health and wellness benefits for its members and staff instead of expanding programming, which is what funders often pressure organizations to do.
- Capacity building funds so CYC could hire coaches to help staff lean into leadership roles in the organization—CYC developed a coaching plan based on each individual’s leadership and professional development needs.
- Facilitated an introduction between CYC’s staff and the staff at other Hazen grantee organizations so they could compare and co-write policies for leadership retention.
Hazen believes in CYC, a powerful and proven example that youth can lead if we trust and support them to grow in their leadership. As such, the foundation looked for every possible resource available to supplement CYC’s youth-led transition and reached out to other core CYC funders to discuss the importance of guaranteeing ongoing funding so that the organization could sustain its work through the executive transition process. Our partnership has been essential to giving CYC’s youth the tools they need to make their visions a reality.
Inspired by CYC’s incredible youth-led organizing, the Hazen Foundation continues transferring multi-year general operating funds from its nearly 100-year-old endowment to CYC. Its board of trustees hopes to support the youth and education justice organizers on the frontlines of this nation’s fight for racial justice. CYC is an essential part of that desired legacy.
We hope CYC and the Hazen Foundation offer an example of what can be accomplished when nonprofits build inclusive, thoughtful transition processes, and when philanthropic partners make repeated, long-term investments in effective organizations. Together, nonprofits and funders can overcome hurdles that stand in the way of communities building power to change systems and achieve justice.