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Burning Bridges

Welcome back to our ongoing discussion about nonprofit search. In this series, I have discussed the challenges professionals face around making a decision to leave a current nonprofit employer, reading and evaluating a job description, preparing your resume and cover letter, navigating the interview, and most recently, salary negotiations. Wow – there is a lot to consider here! In our second to last post in this series, I’m ready to talk about leaving your current position in good standing. The goal is to be able to achieve a strong reference or recommendation from every past employer, so avoid burning bridges by exiting in a way that is respectful, classy and responsible.

First, let’s discuss giving notice and timing

Let’s just start by saying that two-weeks notice is a notion of the past. If you are functioning in a mid-level managerial or executive level role, the expectation is that you will give at least 4 weeks’ notice. While this is not always possible, a ten business day notice seems irresponsible, especially given that it could take 4 – 6 months to find the perfect candidate to fill your role. It’s true that giving extensive notice could also backfire, i.e., you could be asked to leave sooner than the end of your notice period if the new position is seen as a competitor, or in conflict with, your current role. So weigh that issue before deciding how much notice to give, and be prepared at the point you give notice for your organization to ask you to leave immediately. That means get your files in order and collect copies of appropriate work samples (be careful not to take any proprietary materials) before you give notice or submit a letter of resignation. If you are not moving to a competitor, it’s unlikely you will be escorted out the door, and generally your supervisor will greatly appreciate the extended notice. I know I would!

Now, let’s tackle the transition

Second (and assuming you have not been escorted out the door upon giving notice), take time to organize your desk, clean up your physical and computer files, and if possible, create a transition binder that includes information about your current projects, project timelines, important contact information, passwords, and directions for accessing people, places and things. This includes committee lists, vendors, chairman, board information, and event details. Even if this information is accessible within your computer files, it’s always nice to have critical information printed out, all in one place, especially if you are not going to be physically present to train your successor. This practice will also be quite helpful to your supervisor, and allows you to leave in good standing with the organization – thus resulting in a positive reference for your next position.

Next, references

Speaking of references, think about asking for references now, rather than a few years from now when you are less fresh in your colleagues’, supervisor’s or volunteers’ minds. It’s a good idea to either (or both) ask for a written reference from key people within the organization upon your departure, or ask if they would be willing to serve as a reference in the future. Establishing a list of references for future use is a great way to plan for subsequent career moves. While some organizations ask their employees not to serve as formal references for fear of lawsuits, most colleagues or supervisors are willing to speak offline, or informally, about a supervisee or colleague with whom they enjoyed a positive relationship, and the same is generally true for lay leadership.

Last, the resignation letter

I get lots of questions about whether or not a resignation letter is really necessary, given that most of us give verbal notice with regard to our departure. I always advise my friends, clients and colleagues to write a formal resignation letter in addition to a verbal conversation. The letter officially documents the date you gave notice and establishes your last day on the job. This is important in the case that there is confusion about dates, remaining vacation days, or expectations. Be sure you write the letter with a friendly and appreciative tone, expressing gratitude for the experience. Again – this is all about leaving your current position in good standing and being able to use your current employer as a reference.

I wish you the best of luck as you explore new career opportunities and encourage you to download our freebie with a sample resignation letter. I look forward to your comments and questions! Stay tuned in two weeks when we shift back to the employer’s perspective and discuss reference checking.