Starting a nonprofit organization sounds like fun, but the reality is that it takes quite a bit of work. There are valid reasons to start a new organization, but your very first step should be extensive research to make sure the need isn’t being filled already by someone with more experience. All too often, I hear about someone starting an organization to help a village in Africa or to raise money to fight a disease. That time and money could be better spent by joining efforts with an existing group.
Why Your Organization Needs an Interim Executive Director
In any nonprofit organization, the executive director plays a key role. The director is the conduit between the board and staff, the public face of the organization, the person who guides the direction of the organization, and much more. When a long-time director leaves, or when the organization has had multiple directors during a short period of time, the board should consider bringing in an interim executive director to strengthen the organization and facilitate the transition. An interim executive director gives the board time for a comprehensive search for the next executive director, since they don’t have to worry about hurrying to get leadership in place.
As your organization grows, you will develop the best ways to carry out every aspect of your work. Sometimes these are nonprofit best practices. Other times they are simply the methods your bookkeeper or funder wants you to use. The more of these procedures you develop, the more important it is to document them.
In addition, as your nonprofit grows, more staff will be taking care of different duties, and no single staff person will know how to do everything. It’s important for everyone to document their work.
This documentation has a wide range of uses. First, when you take a vacation, it makes it much easier for others to cover for you. Imagine how much easier it would be to prepare to leave for a two-week trip if you have all your day-to-day tasks already documented. Second, when you leave your position, it will be much easier to hand things off and know that the organization will be in good hands moving forward. Third, documenting this information will allow you to see where you can delegate tasks. If you can train someone on a task now, why not have them take it on permanently? Finally, having this documentation will help you be more efficient. In creating the manual, you’ll be able to think through your regular tasks and find ways to do your job more efficiently and effectively. You’ll also have all the information you need documented in one place. For example, you’ll have instructions on how to fill out that complicated form you have to fill out only once a year.
By Erik Haneberg
A client recently introduced me to this wonderful book on board work for small organizations, which describes most of the organizations I work with. It’s a well-written overview of how boards can work best and how to avoid the pitfalls that many of us fall into. There aren’t a lot of good resources for small organizations out there and this book really fills the gap. It’s also easy to read.
Communicating effectively and quickly to your stakeholders in an emergency is an important part of building trust within your community. Imagine the difference between hearing through the grapevine that an executive director was fired, versus hearing from the organization directly that there’s a change in leadership and a plan to move forward with an interim or acting leader. In the first situation, you don’t know what has happened or why, and you don’t have any idea what is happening. It seems like the firing happened suddenly and without any thought. In the latter situation, you know the board took careful and thoughtful actions. Even if you disagree with their process, you know that the board recognizes the repercussions of their decision.
A wide range of terms are used in succession planning and the type of plan you create varies depending on your current stage in the process. I covered the basic types of planning necessary for all organizations in my article on succession planning. In this article, I will provide an overview for those organizations that have a long-time executive director who is planning far in advance for a transition.
It’s easy to get to the end of a year on your nonprofit board and realize that you haven’t taken care of essential tasks for your organization. An easy way to keep tabs on all of the tasks of a board of directors is to create a board calendar that you refer to as you develop each board meeting agenda. This will systematize your work and make it much simpler to check off the tasks.
Here is a starting list for your board calendar of tasks and events to include. The document itself should be reviewed and updated annually.
As organizations begin to plan for succession for the executive director and other key staff, they often realize that the board needs a succession plan as well.
I remember all too well the board meeting when our chair breezed in late and announced this was her last board meeting. She’d changed positions at her company and could no longer serve. None of us expected this news. She’d been a fantastic board chair for the past couple of years. She was involved, brought great ideas, and cared about the mission. Everyone else looked around at each other, with no one willing to step up. Our vice-chair had stated from the beginning that he was unable to put in the time to be the chair. We had no one ready to step up.
Leadership changes at nonprofit organizations are expected, but too often no plan has been created. We know that so much can happen. The current leader’s spouse gets a job offer in another state. Their elderly parent suddenly needs around-the-clock care. The board finds out about an incident outside work, forcing the resignation of the current leader. Often, though, it is much less drastic. Maybe the current leader decides to take an extended vacation and realizes how much they need to record and delegate before they go.
Partnering with an outside search consultant to hire the next executive director allows the board to focus on leading the organization, and on choosing the best candidate, rather than getting bogged down in the details of the search. Too often, boards try to do everything themselves, not realizing until it is too late how much time a search takes, and how different it is from a corporate hire. The executive director is the most important position in the organization and putting in the necessary time to get it right will save everyone time and frustration later on.