In December 2020, Jon Pratt, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits' (MCN) founding executive director, announced his retirement in 2021 after more than 30 years of service to the organization. The board formed a transition committee of board members to oversee the transition, led by former board chair Kenza Hadj-Moussa, director of public affairs and communications at TakeAction Minnesota.
The board and search committee committed to using a thoughtful, strategic approach to the transition process. The goal was to build upon MCN’s strong foundation by evaluating all the potential leadership scenarios available to fulfill and expand upon MCN’s mission to serve the nonprofit sector.
For any organization, a founder transition requires time, attention, and resources. MCN’s transition began with two truths: a founder transition is an important time to reflect, listen, and prioritize what’s important for the organization’s next chapter and Associate Director Nonoko Sato was a strong internal candidate. With guidance from MCN staff and members, the search committee chose to move forward with a traditional search process, while also committing to pausing at key decision points to examine if the field’s “best practices” stood in the way of an equitable process.
In keeping with MCN’s strategic priority to advance equity and justice, the committee created a request for proposals to identify an executive recruitment firm with a strong commitment to equitable search practices. The search committee selected Good Insight, a national firm headquartered in Washington, DC, to partner on a comprehensive national search. MCN was drawn to Good Insight’s focus on transitions from founders and other long-tenured executives, and its anti-racist approaches to executive search and the holistic transition process.
In Spring 2021, Good Insight conducted surveys, listening sessions, and interviews with the search committee, staff, and the 23-person board of directors composed of MCN members from across the state. This stakeholder engagement surfaced some key findings about the next executive director:
- A champion for equity and justice;
- A collaborative leadership style;
- A comprehensive understanding of the nonprofit sector; and
- Very strong support from the board and the staff for appointing Nonoko Sato, MCN’s associate director.
The search committee met to review these findings and discussed some important questions, including how to select an interim executive director in a way that balanced Jon’s upcoming departure and maintaining Nonoko’s candidacy; the impact of conducting a broad external search only to select the strong internal candidate; and where to focus the organization’s energy and resources at a pivotal time.
The search committee shared with the staff and board that they were taking a pause to discuss the process further. They surfaced the committee’s key questions for discussion at MCN’s June board meeting. Following the meeting, the search committee chair issued a pulse-check survey to understand where each board member stood on suspending the national search and appointing Nonoko directly. The survey found strong support for this option, with others sharing a neutral opinion or offering thoughtful responses for why an external search would be helpful to assess where the organization could go under its next leader. Those responses showed that people were open to Nonoko leading MCN, but ultimately they wanted to know more about her vision, leadership style, and how she would advance the organization’s priorities in a new role.
The search committee decided it would be fair to both Nonoko and potential candidates to fully evaluate her candidacy before launching into a full external search. The search committee developed a job description to identify key criteria for a successful executive director candidate, and created a structured interview process with these criteria in mind. The committee scheduled an interview with Nonoko, which helped the members understand her record of accomplishments at both MCN and earlier in her career, how she envisions MCN advancing its commitment to equity and justice, and to understand where she wants to grow as a leader. Following the interview, the search committee was unanimous in its decision to recommend her as the permanent ED, and brought this recommendation forward to the full board. Their recommendation was accepted with unanimous consent by MCN’s board of directors in late June.
“Founder transitions require courage and transparency,” shared Carlyn Madden, CEO of Good Insight. “The nonprofit sector suffers from the myth of the hero-leader - that there is a single perfect person for any job. It is clear that Nonoko has an excellent record of service to MCN, strong support across the organization, and brings passion, vision, and skill to this new role. It took courage for MCN’s board of directors to not embark on an external search. Instead, they made a strategic choice to honor the leadership that they developed in Nonoko and invest in her vision for MCN and its members. As a statewide association, MCN’s transparency about the decision will have a decades-long impact as other nonprofits model these new approaches to executive search and talent development”
Director of Public Affairs
Founder & CEO