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 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.
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.
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 firm 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.
Using Change to Your Advantage Webinar – recorded June 10, 2020
Understanding how we cope with change can make a huge difference in how we implement changes in our nonprofits and in our lives. Using William Bridges’ Transition Model, we look at the advantages to being in an uncertain time.
The chair of a nonprofit board has significant power to shape the organization, but all too often, that chair is not prepared to lead. More often than we’d like to admit, the previous board chair needed to step down unexpectedly and someone without training reluctantly takes the position. In a recent study, over half the respondents reported they did nothing to prepare for their role as a board chair. The new board chair is frustrated, because they aren’t sure what to do. The executive director is frustrated, because they have an ineffective board chair. The rest of the board members start pulling back and don’t want to attend meetings. None of this helps the organization grow.
It’s unfortunate, since a great board chair has a real opportunity to make a positive difference for the organization. They can inspire their fellow board members to do their best and support the executive director tremendously. Board chairs need to have a wide range of skills, especially in working with others. They also need to have the time to focus on the board and the organization. The process to choose the next board chair should be deliberate, but it is too often made in a time of panic as the previous chair leaves.
As your organization grows, you will develop the best ways to carry out certain tasks. Sometimes these are best practices in a nonprofit, other times they are simply the way your bookkeeper or funder wants you to do things. The more of these procedures you develop, the more important it is to document them.
In addition, as your organization grows, more staff will be taking care of different duties, and no one 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, if 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, if you do 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.
The possibility of a long-term trusted and high performing executive director leaving their position is a scary prospect for most boards. It can be made more manageable by intentional planning and open discussions. In addition, taking the time to explore succession planning and leadership development now will benefit the organization immediately through reduced workloads, better-trained staff, and the opportunity for future growth.
Through a new program called Successful Transitions, Lincoln organizations developed their plans and prepared for the future. The first Successful Transitions cohort consisted of six nonprofit organizations. One has an executive director who had a firm retirement date less than a year away. Two others have founding executive directors considering retirement someday in the future, but knew they needed to put plans in place for a smooth transition. The other three have no departure plans but understood that succession planning would benefit the entire organization now and in the future. There was also a wide range of organization size (staff sizes between 1 and 75) and executive director tenure (2 to 40+ years).
In this video, I cover all of the basics of succession planning. It’s an important tool for long term sustainability for nonprofit organizations. Contact me and I’ll be happy to help you develop your own organization’s succession plan.