If the board president or executive director of your nonprofit organization resigned tomorrow, what’s the first thing would your board do? If your answer is, “I don’t know,” it’s time to get busy working on nonprofit succession planning.
Nonprofit boards are inherently passionate about their cause. Professionally and personally, they tend to be a tight group. When a board director, executive director, or nonprofit leader leaves their post, whether it’s planned or unexpected, it leaves a stark void within the organization. Nonetheless, the rest of the group needs to keep moving forward.
Transitions are never easy, but a nonprofit succession plan will make the job of filling a vacant position easier.
A succession plan outlines the steps the board needs to take in the event that a board director, executive director, or major staff member leaves the organization at any time, for any reason. If you don’t already have a nominating and governance committee, your first step is to form one because it’s their responsibility to plan and prepare the future leaders of your organization.
The process should take about six months in all, and it should allow three months for interviews.
Here’s a quick checklist of how to plan and prepare for leadership succession:
- Form a nominating and governance committee
- Establish a plan for emergency leadership vacancies
- Establish a plan for planned vacancies
- Develop a recruitment plan
- Identify potential internal candidates
- Identify potential external candidates
- Establish a plan or orientation and onboarding
Form a Nominating and Governance Committee
As new issues develop globally, nonprofit board directors are increasingly being held responsible for good governance practices. This is the best reason for ensuring that your nonprofit has capable leadership at all times.
The nominating and governance committee is usually comprised of the executive director, board directors, and at least one high-level staff member or team leader. Typically, the first task that nominating and governance committee members need to do is to craft job descriptions for the positions of board director, executive director, and any other positions they’ll be planning to fill.
The committee is also tasked with assessing turnover risk, evaluating any upcoming known departures, and making plans for emergency vacancies and planned vacancies.
Establish a Plan for Emergency Leadership Vacancies
Any number of things can happen that might cause a nonprofit leader to leave their position without notice. A leader can resign unexpectedly. The board may decide to terminate someone for good cause. A leader could become ill or pass away. A scandal may cause a leader to need to step down during an investigation for the good of the organization.
The committee decides how to handle these types of situations. Often, they choose to hire an interim leader from within the organization to fill in temporarily.
Establish a Plan for Planned Vacancies
Several different things may signal the committee to activate their succession plan. If your board has term limits, it needs to work toward filling vacancies on the board before they come due. A nonprofit leader may announce their retirement or request to take a sabbatical. These types of situations will give the committee some time to find a replacement.
It’s wise and prudent for nominating and governance committees to recruit potential board members continually, so they always have a pipeline of talent to draw from.
Committees should be forward-thinking in their recruitment efforts. In assessing various candidates, it’s important not to look for a carbon copy of the outgoing person, but to anticipate the skills and abilities that the organization will need in its future leaders and formulate a vision for the kind of growth they’d like the person to achieve during their term.
Develop a Recruitment Plan
The committee will need to develop a recruitment plan and communicate it to others. The board and the current executive director will all usually know individuals in their networks who would make good nonprofit leaders.
Some nominating committees put a board recruitment packet together so that board directors can readily offer it to people they think would make a good addition to the board when an opportunity presents itself. One of the other things that board directors should be assessing during recruitment efforts is how well a new board director will mesh with the current board culture.
In any case, all current board directors should be made aware that board recruitment is part of their board duties and it’s one of the things they should be evaluated on.
Identify Potential Internal Candidates
You may already have identified a few volunteers or staff members that would make fine additions to the board. A hire or appointment to the board from within brings the benefit that the recruit understands the organization’s mission and may be better positioned to do a good job. The nominating committee should work to identify potential internal candidates, assess their interest, cultivate their knowledge, and be prepared to promote or appoint them at the appropriate time.
Identify Potential External Candidates
Nominating committees should also use their networks to identify people outside the organization that would make good nonprofit leaders. Again, board directors should be seeking people that can serve the future needs of the organization rather than to replace the “popular one” whose term is coming to an end. There’s always a bit of awkwardness in the beginning when someone joins the board or staff from outside the organization. Sometimes new people get a little push back from veteran board directors. Boards need to be aware of their culture and do their best to welcome new faces.
Committees should be sure to set aside time for the recruitment of internal and external candidates. The current executive director is often the best person to help the committee find a replacement.
Establish a Plan or Orientation and Onboarding
Once your nominating committee has filled your talent pipeline, they’re halfway there. The nominating committee should then establish a process for orientation and onboarding to help train the new leader in their responsibilities and integrate them into the rest of the team. The orientation process can take anywhere from an hour to a couple of days depending on the size of the organization. Also, it’s important to have a plan in place to monitor the new leader and evaluate them after the first year.
By ensuring that your nonprofit organization continually has good leadership, you can be sure that your nonprofit will be at less risk for liability issues. More importantly, it will be fully-equipped to manage all the changes that come with growth, productivity, and global change.