Jessica Wirgau

  Dr. Jessica Wirgau


During my early twenties, I dabbled in the visual arts, having the occasional chance to show some of my work on my college campus or around town. When I was about to embark on a new life in the New River Valley of southwest Virginia, I channeled my anxiety into a small exhibition that required the kind of mystifying title that only a twenty-something amateur artist can create: The Art of the Transition.

Little did I know that my career in the nonprofit sector would have me living out that title almost daily. Transitioning as an individual, and as a community organization, is challenging, rewarding, stressful, and transformative: all things required for making and appreciating a work of art. And, like most works of art, transitions go on, forever and ever. Organizations are in a constant state of transition. It’s just the nature and magnitude of the transition that varies. My own experience with personal and organizational transition has brought with it important lessons that continue to guide my daily work.

Not Everyone Will Come with You

When I assumed my role as Executive Director of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley, I was following a widely respected mentor and friend, Andy Morikawa. The NRV is a small community, and the number of citizens actively engaged in nonprofit work is even smaller, so, naturally, there was apprehension about how the Foundation might change after Andy’s many successful years at the helm.

The best piece of advice I received as I began my new role was simple: “Jess, not everyone is going to come with you.” It is impossible to please every board member, donor, or stakeholder, and assuming that everyone will embrace a new leader and his or her vision and goals is simply unrealistic. It is a lesson I knew intuitively, but I needed to hear it from a trusted advisor.

Sure enough, I had some difficult meetings in those early months with individuals who made clear their desire to see the Foundation stay exactly as it was. That was a promise I could not make myself or on behalf of the Foundation. Luckily, I had the trust of board members and my staff, and that allowed me to accept that some longtime Foundation allies would embrace my leadership, and others would not. For those who stepped away, new partners, donors, and volunteers stepped in.

Six years later, that advice continues to ring true as the Foundation’s board develops a vision for the next five years. As nonprofits, we are subject to the cultural, political, and economic ebb and flow of our communities, and that requires us to be nimble and to constantly reexamine our work to remain relevant and impactful. As the Foundation begins to prioritize areas of focus for its grant-making, engage with new partners, and revise longstanding policies, some people will balk at those changes.

And that’s okay. Accepting that some will not jump on board with our direction is critical to making the transition to a more effective and influential community organization. If we went back to the drawing board every time someone disagreed, we wouldn’t accomplish anything for our community.

Learn About Yourself Constantly

I was fortunate to have volunteered and worked for the Foundation before becoming director so, as I transitioned into my new role, I thought I had a good sense of the responsibilities I wanted to take on and those that I would delegate to others. It has taken me years to realize that what I thought I originally wanted to do and had the skills to accomplish are not exactly what the job requires or what I enjoy. Ideally, as we transition to new positions or responsibilities within our organizations, we give ourselves the time and space to learn.

I know this is easier said than done, but leadership transition doesn’t end after some magic probationary period. It is ongoing, punctuated by key moments, challenges, and opportunities that help us define the kind of leader we want to be. Moreover, our leadership approach may evolve as new volunteers and staff members with unique abilities come into our organizations. Transition requires a willingness to question, learn, and cut yourself a break now and then. There is no right way to transition into a new role.

The same can be said for organizations as a whole. As a funder, we see our grantees strive for perfection in their projects, particularly when they expand a program or launch something new. Naturally, some grantees come up short, circumstances change, or things just don’t pan out like they thought.

We don’t require perfection, but we do ask for reflection. What has the organization learned that can help it going forward? What lessons can be shared with other organizations facing the same challenges? These are incredibly valuable experiences. We hope that our grantees see our funds as an endorsement of both their project and their willingness to experiment. Transition requires experimentation.

Manage Expectations

My husband is a chemist, quick to wax philosophical about the nature of experimentation. He reminds me that experiments don’t succeed or fail; rather, they support or refute your hypothesis, what you expect to happen. That’s why managing expectations during periods of transition is paramount.

Nonprofit leaders are tempted to promise the world, particularly when trying to prove themselves in a new role. We add items to our to-do list or say yes to a donor’s unconventional request. It may seem okay to do in isolation, but soon this list of requests becomes overwhelming and unmanageable, and it draws us away from pursuing the organization’s core mission in a focused and effective way.

This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, but I’ve come to see how critical it is to be honest with board members, coworkers, donors, and others about what I can and cannot accomplish, and what my organization can do. With very few exceptions, the Foundation’s friends and partners understand. They are as invested in my success as they are in the organization overall. When they know what to expect from me, they can participate more effectively and feel comfortable stepping in to help.

At the organizational level, approaching programs or decisions on a case by case basis to satisfy every stakeholder simply isn’t scalable or sustainable. As our organizations grow, we must be open to new approaches that can grow with us. We also need to consider how those approaches change expectations for our staff and volunteers, the expectations we have of them, and those they have of the organization.

The Foundation has expanded and changed its scope in some significant ways over the last three years. We collaborate with dozens of organizations on a diverse array of projects, and we work with hundreds of donors. That has necessitated transitioning from an extremely hands-on board with deep knowledge of our activities, to a more strategic board that provides broad guidance and oversight, and delegates authority to committees and staff. For some of our longtime volunteer leaders, this transition has created some anxiety. They expect to be well versed in the day-to-day details of every project and to make decisions based on those details. This simply is not possible anymore. If we spent our board meetings reviewing the details of every project with which we’re involved, we’d be meeting for days!

As nonprofits navigate transition, they must acknowledge the discomfort that can come when individual expectations clash with organizational realities. In particular, staff and volunteer leaders should reevaluate expectations, and they should collectively develop methods of accountability to meet or adjust those expectations when necessary.

Final Thoughts

Periods of transition for us as individuals and as organizations can be disorienting until we accept that the process never really ends, nor should it. By learning about ourselves, understanding expectations and limitations, and letting go of the idea that we can bring everyone along with us, we can thrive in the process of transition. We can avoid taking ourselves so seriously and just enjoy giving back to our communities.

Dr. Jessica Wirgau is Executive Director of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley located in Christiansburg, Virginia, a place-based foundation working with local donors to provide grants, scholarships, and capacity-building opportunities for nonprofits. She enjoys exploring how the Foundation can draw diverse organizations together around common challenges and use its grant-funding and capacity-building activities to address critical community needs.

This article is reprinted from Issue #9 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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