Exit Strategy: Handing Off the Nonprofit Dance Studio You Founded

Start well in advance, because not only will you be seeking new executive leadership, you’ll want to lay the groundwork for them to be successful. Here’s a look at how Dance Place in Washington, DC, did it.

Dancer at barre looking out large paned window.
Founders who want their dance studio to have a long life after their tenure need a succession plan. Getty Images

Like any for-profit studio owner looking to sell her business, if you’re transitioning to new executive leadership at a nonprofit you’ve founded, careful advance planning is a must. Not only will you be seeking a new leader, you’ll want to lay the groundwork for them to be successful. Deborah Riley, who co-directed the nonprofit dance school Dance Place in Washington, DC, wanted her school to have a long life beyond her tenure. Though her exit strategy needed to hew to somewhat different guidelines than the sale of a for-profit studio—a nonprofit may be sold, but the sales proceeds must benefit the organization and not private parties—the goal of a smooth transition to ensure the new leader’s success was the same. 

Slow and Steady Wins the Race 

Dance Place, a nonprofit community arts center that serves as both a school and performance space, was founded in 1980 by Carla Perlo. In 2003, Deborah Riley, who held various roles at Dance Place for 30 years, came on board as co-director with Perlo. The two shared both artistic and executive management and vision of the organization.

When Perlo and Riley began considering retirement, they gave Dance Place’s board of directors two years’ notice, per their contracts. “It’s a huge transition when a founder steps away from that directorship role,” says Riley. “Carla and I wanted the two-year process, so that we could enact some initiatives like strengthening our current staff and creating a senior management team for the first time in our history.” Six months into their two-year notice, Perlo and Riley helped the board create and set in motion a three-year leadership-succession strategy. Using grant funding, they hired a consultant to lead the strategic planning. “Embedded in the strategic plan were goals and initiatives regarding leadership transition—related to finding a new director as well as board development,” says Riley. “The board wanted to better understand the operations of Dance Place so they’d have a more informed understanding as they were selecting a new director.”

If three years sounds like a long time to stick around and help out, that’s because Dance Place is Riley and Perlo’s baby. “We wanted plenty of time to engage in the search [for new leadership] because we knew it was going to be difficult to find exactly the right person to take the organization into the future,” says Riley. “We needed the time to fully absorb making such a drastic change for the organization.”

Dance Place worked with an outside consultant to write a job description, receive applications, vet all applicants and help prepare for interviews. Once the pool of applicants had been narrowed down, Perlo, Riley and staff had opportunities to interact with the candidates. Christopher K. Morgan, who was eventually chosen as the new director, officially took over in 2017, after a month of mentorship by Perlo and Riley. Both Riley and Perlo received modest severance pay, disbursed over two years. 

Word of Advice 

Time is crucial to the transition process, Riley says. Having a lengthy plan helped Dance Place choose and begin the transition to a new director. “Because Dance Place is a very dynamic, densely programmed organization, and, to keep up, we always needed to work as hard as we could, we knew it would take time to fit in another challenging process,” she says.

Last updated October 1, 2019

Rachel Rizzuto writes the Business column for Dance Teacher and is a second-year MFA student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.