Coleman Advocates' Leadership Transition
Updated: Aug 25
A Model of Success
Over the past three years, the Cricket Island Foundation (CIF) has supported Coleman Advocates in designing and implementing a successful leadership transition. Coleman is a 48-year-old nonprofit that advocates for expanded opportunities for San Francisco’s children, youth, and families—especially low-income Black and Brown students and their families. The Foundation offered Coleman the rare combination of funding, space, and partnership to rethink the organization’s leadership.
Prepping for a Leadership Change
Neva Walker began serving as the Executive Director of Coleman Advocates in 2011. By early 2019, Neva was feeling overworked, burnt out, and ready to transition out of her position.
Her own move into the Executive Director role years earlier had been difficult. Several funders paused or withdrew support, taking a wait-and-see approach before making commitments to the organization, and there was little support available to cover costs associated with a leadership transition. Neva wanted her transition to be a more intentional and supportive process, which included leadership coaching, a long runway for onboarding, a strong staff team, and a healthy budget.
Supporting New Leadership
Concurrently, Cricket Island had begun a pilot round of grants to assist organizations with leadership transitions in early 2019. We had repeatedly seen philanthropic practices that undermined successful transitions. Many donors pulled back or held funding when they heard about a transition. Once new leaders came on, incoming leaders were often left with high expectations but few resources to build their own and their organization’s capacity and get on a solid financial footing. As the Building Movement Project research has shown, this was particularly a problem for new Black, Brown, and LGBTQIA+ leaders. We wanted to fill a critical gap by supporting new leaders and stabilizing organizations during a particularly vulnerable time.
Cricket Island gave Coleman an initial $45,000 leadership transition grant which they were able to use for needs they identified. The organization used those funds to work with external consultants and design a plan for the transition that engaged the organization’s stakeholders. Two subsequent $45,000 grants allowed the organization to continue working with the transition consultants to troubleshoot challenges as they arose, strategize on how to bring in other funders, as well as to pay for the salaries of their incoming Executive Directors, leadership coaching, and retreats.
Cricket Island’s support created space for Coleman to explore alternative leadership structures, ultimately developing a structure that was right for the organization. Instead of transitioning to a single Executive Director, Coleman re-envisioned the role as two Co-Executive Directors sharing significant leadership duties and supporting each other.
The organization’s transition team was intent on the next leaders coming from the field of youth advocacy and the communities that Coleman represents. With the time and thoughtfulness that the transition process allowed, the organization was able to identify and engage with two amazing leaders who would become the eventual Co-Executive Directors.
Coleman was able to convey Neva’s departure while sharing a plan and budget for the transition. This significantly eased the anxiety of partners and funders who might have otherwise reconsidered their partnerships and grant commitments.
Building a Dream Team
Chris Ballard and Christina Cañaveral were both long-time members of the Coleman family, having served together as organizers and on the organization’s Board of Directors. Chris is a long-time organizer, criminal law and criminal justice professor, and father of two. Christina has 20 years of experience in family engagement, youth development, and education policy. Neva is excited to pass the torch to this dream team.
"Christina started at Coleman a month after I did. In addition to being part of the Coleman family, she is someone. I deeply respect and adore. Christina and Chris are our dynamic duo, and I am thrilled to be stepping aside to support their leadership and vision." - Neva Walker
Taking the Next Steps
Coleman’s leadership transition is now complete and Cricket Island’s three years of support for Coleman are also coming to an end. Chris moved into the Co-Executive Director role in mid-2022, and Christina joined him in June 2023.
For Cricket Island, the leadership transition grants program has evolved. Based on feedback from grantees and advisors, we now offer three years of general operating support - one for each phase of a transition - instead of annual renewals; this gives organizations the support to be creative about their transitions and offers a small amount of stability to incoming leaders. We’ve also become more accessible by moving to an open call for grant requests instead of running an invitation-only process. Grantee organizations are now selected by a six-person grantmaking advisory committee, not one individual.
We’re excited about how this targeted funding can support organizations during a critical time. Transitions can be very difficult, especially for small, grassroots groups. As we’ve seen with the example of Coleman Advocates, this fills a funding gap and supports healthy, sustainable, and resilient nonprofit organizations.