Succession in a nonprofit takes place at several different levels, the three most important being turnover of the Executive Director, the board chair, and board members.

Change is risky business

There is always push back in every organization whenever long time, top level performers announce that they will be involved in a transition in the next one to five years. While it feels really scary to face any change like this in the status quo, hiding from the inevitable puts the organization at a much greater risk than the change itself. Whenever you hear someone say, “Those are big shoes to fill” – you need to recognize the potential danger in the sentiment that lies behind those innocent words. This philosophy, which is frequently heard, reinforces a defeatist attitude and can turn a succession situation into a nightmare for all involved. 

Building a high performing board is a perpetual process  

The by-laws of most nonprofit organizations include a section on term limits. This inclusion ensures the organization will benefit from the planned turnover of leaders so as to generate new ideas and fresh concepts. But it also means that the board will experience constant transition. The Executive Director/ CEO needs to be prepared for this by having a process to systematically identify and qualify future board members. It is key to adopt a strategic approach in order to find the right members, and at the same time, to avoid selecting those volunteers who simply pass “the mirror test,” meaning they are breathing and alive but not necessarily aligned with the vision and mission of the nonprofit!  If the best people, the most passionate people, those who are champions for the mission, do not have a seat at the table, it makes it incredibly difficult to ensure smart committee chairs, senior officers, and a strong, competent executive director. One possible solution is to form a standing recruiting committee consisting of members who are aware of the gaps in the board and are charged with consistently seeking suitable prospects who will add real value to the board (and not occupy a seat to embellish their resume).

Board chairs need to help find their successors

Board chairs, like board members, need to be thoroughly vetted and properly placed in the role where they can be the most effective. Having often occupied a leadership position as a board member, when a board chair accepts the newly expanded responsibilities, there is an awareness that there will be a number of new challenges.  An incoming board chair must understand that he or she will be working with, and shaping, the board. To accomplish this, the board chair is expected to work closely with the Executive Director and staff to achieve their goals.  In fact, a relationship between the board chair and ED that is founded on trust and respect, provides the organization with a significant advantage. 

But no matter how well everything is going, the atmosphere within the organization can become emotionally charged when the board chair has reached the limit of his or her tenure based on by-laws or by choice because the discussion is uncomfortable. It is so much easier to just act as if nothing is happening and that life will continue on as it always has before!

But change is coming! And without a plan for helping, coaching, and training the new board chair, the organization will continue to undergo growing pains every time a change takes place in any high level office.

CEO retiring? “I don’t want to talk about it!”

With or without the predicted mass exodus of Baby Boomers over the next five years, boards and their members need to open their eyes and prepare for changes at the top. Board chairs and board members will undergo transitions that must be handled thoughtfully, but the challenge is even greater when it is the ED who is leaving.

 Given how critical the scenario can be, one of the first questions to ask is how much time do you have in order to get ready for this major shift? That of course is the $64 million dollar question. It could be six months or five years, but regardless of the time line, most nonprofits will acknowledge that they began the process too late in the game. The more you drag your heels, the more resistance you offer in the process of preparing for change, the great is the danger for the nonprofit’s future sustainability.

Working towards a smooth hand off

You can avoid some of the pitfalls that may occur during succession planning when you begin by preparing a written, detailed job description that includes the personal skills and key attributes of the ideal candidate along with information regarding the type of activities and tasks that will be required. This type of comprehensive document can help the search committee because it goes well beyond the specific, obvious parameters of the job in order to highlight the significant qualities and core values that will lead to a successful transition and subsequently an easy succession.

When the Executive Director or Board Chair has been in the leadership role, and in the public eye, for a long time, the obstacles are even greater for any succession discussion looming on the horizon.  Selecting from outside the organization or advancing from within, the key is to start early and to make all the introductions necessary to transfer some of the connections from the present to the future leaders. No one achieves a highly-respected reputation in the community overnight. It is just common sense to realize that it will not be a quick and easy task to transfer those well-established relationships to the next leader in line. But by starting early the nonprofit can help manage the process more efficiently and effectively.      

Key take-aways

Sleepless nights can be spent worrying about an upcoming departure, but even under the most trying conditions there are some words of wisdom that can minimize the trauma of one person’s leaving while paving the way for celebrating the next person coming in.

  • Establish a time line
  • Have a strategic plan in place that outlines the succession process
  • Maintain an accurate picture of the organization’s current talent and its overall strengths and be aware of where improvements need to be made
  • Be consistently in a recruiting mode, always seeking the best and brightest volunteers
  • Prepare a job description that includes additional attributes and character traits that are valued by the organization
  • Do not rush through the decision-making; it is a slow process and must be executed in a thoughtful manner
  • Ask the right questions and listen to every response – avoid unpleasant surprises

Good luck!