It’s no secret that baby boomers are leaders in the nonprofit industry. And it’s no secret that this group is leaving en masse. Approximately 75 million of them are expected to retire by 2030.1
Departing leaders and other staffing shifts have created a workforce crisis within the sector.
Succession planning is a vital process for any organization that wants to protect its long-term sustainability and effectiveness. For nonprofits, succession planning is especially important because they often face challenges such as limited resources, high turnover, and changing needs of their communities.
According to BoardSource’s 2021 Leading with Intent report,2 less than 30% of all nonprofits surveyed reported they had a written succession plan in place. This means most nonprofits are not ready to handle the inevitable transitions of leadership that will occur at some point.
Board members of registered nonprofit organizations must comply with three legal responsibilities—Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty, and Duty of Obligation. One of Duty of Care’s main components requires the board of directors to develop organizational sustainability by recruiting and overseeing executive leadership. This includes preparing for both planned and unplanned departures of key leaders. Board members also should be proactive in cultivating a diverse and talented pool of potential leaders for the organization.
To avoid the negative impacts of leadership gaps, such as loss of momentum, donor confidence, and staff morale, nonprofit board members should consider these 10 best practices for succession planning:
- Encourage the board and staff to manage leadership transition intentionally rather than in a reactive mode. Board members should communicate the importance and benefits of succession planning to the organization and involve key stakeholders in the process.
- Identify current and future organizational challenges and define leadership qualities needed to navigate the challenges. Board members should conduct a strategic assessment of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and define the skills, competencies, and values that are essential for the next leader to be successful.
- Consider placing an interim leader at the helm during the transition. Board members can evaluate the pros and cons of hiring an interim leader versus promoting from within or conducting an external search. An interim leader can provide stability, continuity, and fresh perspective during a transition period, but also may pose challenges such as lack of commitment, authority, or alignment with the organization’s culture and vision.
- Draft a timeline for the transition process. The board and other committee members should establish a clear process and timeline for selecting and evaluating potential successors. The timeline will help the search committee meet deadlines and stay on track. It also will be helpful for candidates to understand the process.
- Adopt an emergency leadership transition plan to address the timely delegation of duties and authority whenever there is an unexpected transition or interruption in key leadership. Board members should prepare a contingency plan that outlines who will take over the responsibilities and decision-making power of the departing leader in case of an emergency, such as illness, death, or resignation. The plan also should specify how to communicate the situation to internal and external stakeholders and how to initiate a formal succession process.
- Identify leadership development opportunities for staff to expand their leadership skills so the organization will have a “deeper bench” of future leaders. Board members should invest in training, mentoring, coaching, and feedback for current and potential leaders within the organization. They also should encourage staff to take on new roles, projects, and challenges that will stretch their abilities and prepare them for higher levels of leadership.
- Provide resources needed for current staff to cross-train, minimizing the disruption that can occur from unexpected staffing changes. Board members should confirm that there is adequate knowledge transfer and documentation of key processes, policies, and procedures within the organization. They also should foster a culture of collaboration and teamwork among staff members so that they can support each other and fill in the gaps when needed.
- Adequately support new leaders with coaching, mentoring, and defining goals. Board members should provide orientation, guidance, and resources for new leaders who join the organization. They also should set clear expectations, monitor performance, and provide constructive feedback for improvement.
- Board members should develop a communication plan that informs and engages donors, partners, clients, volunteers, media, and other stakeholders about the transition process and outcomes. They also should highlight the achievements and contributions of the outgoing leader and introduce and endorse the incoming leader.
- On-board deliberately: Help new leaders feel confident and find their own voices. Board members should welcome new staff leaders by being supportive and showing appreciation. They also should respect their autonomy and authority while offering advice when needed.
By following these best practices, nonprofit board members can play a crucial role in creating a smooth and successful succession plan for their organization. They also can help build a strong leadership pipeline that can sustain the organization’s mission and impact for years to come.
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