Strong leadership is vital for nonprofits and succession planning helps you maintain that. Key board members and executive leaders play key roles in the health of your organization. Often, it’s only when a key leader is absent that board members, staff members, and volunteers realize just how greatly the organization depends on just one leader. At such a time, the gap in leadership can be glaring and disconcerting.
From a financial perspective, weak nonprofit leadership can result in low membership rates, lost donations, and reduced capacity for grants. Poor leadership can also affect manpower as staff members and volunteers will lose faith in its leaders. A nonprofit in this position sets itself up to lose the employees, volunteers, and funding they so greatly depend on. To put it bluntly, weak leadership can be the kiss of death for a nonprofit.
There are two types of vacancies in nonprofit organizations—those that are planned and those that are unplanned. Even when a key leader’s departure is planned, it’s sure to change the dynamics of the leadership and that is sure to have a trickle-down effect from the most involved to the least-involved stakeholders.
The work of the leaders must continue to fulfill the nonprofit’s mission regardless of which individuals hold various leadership positions. Vacancies don’t necessarily have to mean doom and gloom. Succession planning is the key to preventing nonprofits from straying off course during leadership transitions. A sound succession plan helps boards prepare in advance for board and leadership vacancies.
There’s no need to be overwhelmed if you don’t know where to start. Every nonprofit is unique, so there’s no one-size-fits-all template for developing a leadership succession plan. However, nonprofit board succession planning best practices will guide your path to developing the best succession planning process for your organization. Best practices for succession planning include developing an internal vision for your succession plan, assessing potential vacancies, outlining steps for success, recruiting new leaders, and establishing a process to onboard and transition new leaders as quickly as possible.
Here’s a step-by-step according to nonprofit board succession planning best practices.
Nonprofit Board Succession Planning Best Practices
Developing an Internal Vision for Succession Planning
Everyone holds their own ideas and opinions about what they want to see in board and executive leadership. The matter of leadership is too important for anyone to be making assumptions. The best way to help get everyone on the same page is to put the issue on the board’s agenda and start aligning the vision for the organization’s leadership.
If you haven’t done so already, form a nominating and governance committee and slate it with a high-level staff member, at least one board member, and any other individuals that are vested in the process.
Define each person’s role in selecting viable candidates and describe their responsibilities for helping new leaders transition into their new roles successfully.
Nonprofit leaders should be forward-thinking and that should be a primary consideration in narrowing down the final candidates.
Assess Potential Vacancies
Your executive director should have an annual review. If reviews are trending poorly and the board lacks faith in the current individual to continue serving, the committee should immediately focus their efforts on identifying possible candidates for replacement.
Succession planning also includes board members. Nonprofit board seats typically have specific terms. The committee should be continually recruiting board members and they need to be cognizant of any upcoming vacancies due to term limits.
Your succession plan should include steps for planned vacancies and for emergencies. Nominating committees usually have ample notice for things like planned retirements and terminations.
Emergency planning can be a lifesaver if a key nonprofit leader unexpectedly resigns, dies, or is abruptly terminated. Determine how long you could reasonably leave the position open without having any negative effects on the organization and who could fill the position in the interim.
Recruiting New Leaders from the Outside
For planned vacancies, begin an external search at least six months before the expected vacancy. People from the outside often bring new skills and a fresh outlook on how to progress a nonprofit organization. While external candidates are often the best choice for leadership positions, it’s also common to get pushback from those who prefer choosing internal candidates. Nominating committees should be prepared to overcome this objection.
Once you narrow down the candidates, allow about three months for interviews.
If an external candidate is chosen and accepts the position, expect things to be a little awkward in the beginning, but eventually, new dynamics will forge and they’ll eventually create unique relationships with the board and staff.
Recruiting New Leaders from the Inside
Internal candidates also bring a lot of value to nonprofit leadership positions. They’re already familiar with the nonprofit’s people and culture, and that can be a huge asset during the transition period. The time to train internal recruits is during the recruitment process. The time before an internal candidate accepts a leadership position is an opportune time to cultivate internal talent. Identify people that have leadership skills and qualities and start training them before vacancies open up. The committee won’t have to look far for internal candidates when there’s an opening.
Establishing a Process for Onboarding and Transitioning New Nonprofit Leaders
Whether you select a candidate from the inside or the outside, you’ll want to prime them for success. During the recruiting process, be sure that you have a solid onboarding process, so the new leader can transition into their role as easily as possible.
Onboarding starts with a thorough orientation. The onboarding process may take from three to six months. This is the time to acquaint them with the rest of their team and train them in the responsibilities for their role.
BoardEffect offers a secure platform where board members and other leaders can collaborate and share information securely. Use it for nominating and governance committees to facilitate and streamline succession planning securely. Granular permissions makes it possible for committees to work privately and add board members to the group at any time.
Finally, new leaders will be able to do their best when you give them a written copy of their job description. The nominating committee, executive director, and board members should follow through on their responsibilities to help the leader acclimate to their role. Give them regular feedback and assess their progress as they transition into their role.
Board succession planning is most effective when organizations prepare well in advance. Download our Board Succession Planning Kit for key tips and best practices to follow.