In Episode 67 of the Charity Charge Show, Stephen talks with Claas Ehlers, CEO of Family Promise, whose mission is to help families experiencing homelessness and low-income families achieve sustainable independence through a community-based response. Claas and Stephen talk about how homeless prevention and diversion make fiscal sense, how anyone can use their special skills as a volunteer, and Family Promise’s successful transition in 2016 from their founder as CEO to Claas as CEO.
A graduate of New York University, Claas worked in video production, publishing, business development, and advertising while also teaching English as an adjunct professor at two local community colleges. From his work with low-income students, he saw first-hand the struggle of families to change their economic circumstances.
In 2002, he was able to align his passion for social justice with his career, joining Family Promise to lead a project to diversify the faith groups involved in its programs. In January of 2016, Claas became the second president in the 28-year history of Family Promise. Outside of work, Claas’s interests include running, hiking, the New York Mets, music, and cooking. He lives in Mountainside, NJ with his wife, Ellen Pluta, a professor at Stern School of Business at NYU and has three children: Arabella, Luke, and Colette.
Here is the advice Claas gives for transitioning from the founder of a nonprofit to the second CEO:
I think it’s not dissimilar from a family business. I think the key elements are, first, you need to define a role for the founder, because the founder does not disappear, nor does the founder want to disappear. But the founder obviously has to shift. At the same time, the founder has a lot of equity. So you want to make sure you’re clear on what their role is. Karen, our founder, was fantastic. She was very willing to be that public face in certain ways where we could leverage it to bring in resources. She also was very willing to be counsel, giving me plenty of advice, but not stepping in not telling me what to do, which was incredibly valuable. Another key element when you do a transition is the kind of stuff that gets calcified and needs to be shaken up. When I leave Family Promise, the person coming after me is going to say, “Why the heck did he do it that way? They were so many better ways.” But this is human nature. There’s always going to be change, so really focus on culture, first and foremost, because the head of an organization defines culture. And culture is always going to change when there are new people. You want to make sure that you get that alignment on culture, because as it’s been said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The other thing I would say is establish a new normal. We did not do our strategic planning until over a year after the transition because you need to figure out what the new normal is before you can do that. And I think there’s a tendency when there’s succession to get the strategic planning done. But wait, because it’s going to be more effective once you start to figure out the new way of operating. Those would be my key pieces of advice around founder transition: really plan a lot, really define those roles, and really focus on a kind of a shift in culture. What are you going to do there before you do anything else?
Interested in listening to the full episode and hearing more from other nonprofits? Check out more episodes here Charity Charge Show