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Exiting With Grace: How You Leave a Position Can Make – Or Break – Your Career

Wednesday, April 4, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Melissa Neeley
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Exiting with Grace

How You Leave a Position Can Make – Or Break – Your Career


I remember the last day of every position I have held in my career – do you? I remember how I felt, what I did, how I walked out of each building at the end of the day with bittersweet feelings, a bit of sentimental sadness, and a sense of relieved accomplishment in leaving things tied up in a nice, neat knot.


It is one of life’s milestones, though often ignored. We celebrate new jobs and promotions with fervor and fireworks, Facebook posts, and more, but how often do we give the same amount of emotional attention to leaving a position? Yes, we sometimes have farewell cakes and gatherings with colleagues, but not all exits happen that way. Sometimes it is quiet and uneventful, keys and badges left on the desk, a goodbye walk to the parking lot, your last personal items in a box under your arm.


In our working lives, inevitably we will have transitions – sometimes you leave a job for personal reasons, geographical moves, a new opportunity, or simply because you Just. Need. To. Leave.


In my career I have been fortunate to have positive farewell experiences overall. Most of my transitions have been due to geographical moves, but my most recent move was the personally terrifying decision to start my own business. It was not easy to share that news, and I gave my notice three months before my last day. I was fortunate to have supervisors who knew that I wanted to give ample time to find a replacement and to provide enough time to smoothly transition, and they thankfully let me finish the full three months, allowing time to close up projects, transition portfolios, and make it a better experience for the team overall (hopefully 😊).


Transitions are hard, even in the best of circumstances. So how do you leave a position where things have not been so rosy? Sure, it is tempting to go out in a blaze of glory – throwing metaphorical grenades on your way out – but we all know that our petty instincts are not best practices.


So how do you leave a job gracefully?


In our small, interconnected world of nonprofit fundraising, it is imperative that we leave a job just as professionally as we start one. Remember your first day on your first professional position? Remember your nervous, excited energy to make a good impression, be friendly, soak in as much information as you could? So how do you maintain the same professionalism about your last day at a workplace?


Even when your working experience has been anything but positive, leaving your position with grace and professionalism is absolutely key to retaining and building your reputation in our field. Why? Simply put, this is a wildly interconnected, incestuous world that is ever-changing. Professionals move constantly. As a consultant I have seen many exits, and not all of them have been well-executed. Burning bridges and throwing grenades is the absolute worst thing we can do as nonprofit development fundraisers – even when the grenades are more than warranted. We are a relationship-driven world, and we development professionals are astute at sniffing out the complexities of our working world. Simply put, there is no need to throw grenades as the building will eventually catch fire on its own. I repeat: the building will eventually catch fire on its own.



So, what do we do? How do we leave gracefully? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Announce your intent to leave with a prepared letter and diplomatic attention to courtesy and professionalism. Make an appointment with your supervisor. Have a letter prepared and signed explaining your intent to resign. Share your plans with candor and professionalism, removing emotion, blame, anger, or any other negative emotion if you have been in a less than fortunate position.
  • Take the high road and give at least two weeks’ notice – if not more. Sure, your boss may ask you to leave immediately, which is always possible, but I have found that most supervisors appreciate ample notice to allow for a smoother transition.
  • Choose your timing carefully. Don’t announce your resignation right before a major event, stressful board meeting, or busy day for your supervisor. Choose a time and place that will allow for a private conversation. If you anticipate awkwardness, perhaps choose the end of a work day so you can leave discreetly after your meeting.
  • Do not announce your resignation to your colleagues before you speak with your supervisor. Your supervisor should be the first colleague to know about your intent to leave. Be courteous and respectful, no matter the circumstances.
  • If faced with a less-than-thrilled response from your supervisor, stay cool and calm and explain you have thoughtfully considered your decision and feel it is the appropriate time and move for you. Diplomacy and professionalism are hugely important.
  • If you are concerned about a confrontational meeting if your work environment has been hostile, consider approaching your HR department for counsel. While involving HR can be difficult and seen as an aggressive move, you ultimately need to protect yourself and the process.
  • Come prepared with a plan for transition. Your supervisor will appreciate proactive thinking about how you plan to wrap up projects, tie up loose ends, and ensure deadlines are met. Transitions are hugely time-consuming and disruptive to teams, so do all you can to alleviate stress on your team and organization.
  • Remember that your transition will affect not only your internal team, but also those you work with throughout the organization, and let’s not forget – DONORS. If you are a gift officer, determine a communication plan to your portfolio donors to inform them of your transition and give them a colleague’s information so they have someone to contact in the meantime. Your donors need to be taken care of – do not just disappear. Taking time to hand them over with care can go a long way in retaining relationships for your organization.
  • Remember that leaving a position can be tough and emotional, but do not spend your final days gossiping in the halls with colleagues and leaving a blazing trail of negativity. I repeat: take the high road.
  • Clean up files both hard copy and digital, but do not erase any files that are related to your organization. Consider the person who will take your seat after you – make it as easy as you can on them. Believe me, they will notice and appreciate it.
  • If you need to bring attention to any concerning items in the organization, leave that for your exit interview, if offered, with HR. Again, be professional and courteous, but this is where you bring up any serious concerns. Remember though, this is not where personal vendettas get aired. This is for the good of the organization. Of course, keep in mind that even if you speak up, action may or may not be taken. But you can leave knowing you at least spoke up.
  • Work hard to tie up loose ends. My philosophy has always been to leave the job in a better condition than when you started it. We are stewards of our organizations and the donors who support them. Remember to honor your role in this field and make sure your organization is taken care of when you leave.
  • Thank your boss. Yes, even when things aren’t so great. Thank them for the opportunity to have been a part of the organization and to work for a great mission. There is always something positive and diplomatic you can say.

If you approach leaving with as much attention as you do starting a job, you will leave your organization in a good place and know you did all you could to be professional and thorough. Remember, chances are you will run into your former bosses and colleagues in the future. People remember, and people talk – that is the nature of our world. Make sure you can encounter your former teams with confidence, grace and professionalism.


Trust me, it will go a long way for your career and reputation.


About The Author


Sara B. Wise is an experienced non-profit fundraising professional with a career spanning education, social services and cultural organizations. A summa cum laude graduate of Texas Christian University, Sara began her fundraising career as a student at TCU assisting the Alumni and Advancement offices through the Student Foundation program and as a student employee on the Admissions team. Sara’s 17 years of professional development experience include capital campaign and board support work at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Virginia, alumni and annual fund management at the Episcopal School of Dallas, individual giving at the American Red Cross Greater Houston Chapter, and four years managing a donor portfolio, and supervising other programs as a Director of Development at the Houston Zoo. In January 2016, Sara launched her independent consulting business, Sara Wise Strategies, and has worked with over a dozen nonprofit organizations in just over two years to execute overall development strategy and plans, events, data projects, feasibility and campaign work, and more.


In addition to her work, Sara volunteers with the Salvation Army Women's Auxiliary, her church home at Strawbridge United Methodist Church, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In 2016, Sara joined the Board of Directors of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Houston Chapter, chaired the 2017 National Philanthropy Day luncheon, and serves currently as President Elect. She lives in the Fall Creek area of Humble and enjoys spending time with her husband, Ken Wise, and her children Sarah Jane and Jackson.

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