Don’t Skip Succession Planning for Your Board

Succession and transition planning have become increasingly important as nonprofit boards and funders are more focused on ensuring that organizations can function effectively if a leader departs. The entire emphasis is on the professional leader, with little attention paid to how the board manages its own transition. It is critical to have a succession plan in place for professional leadership, but equally important for the board to pay attention to its own development and succession planning. Good nonprofit governance supports the creation of a process at the board level. Here are some questions to focus your thinking:

1. How does your board recruit new directors?
2. How are members assessed and groomed for potential leadership roles?
3. What board committees and roles do directors need to participate in before they can serve effectively as officers?
4. Is there a plan in place for board leadership to ensure a smooth transition to new officers?
5. Are there contingency plans in place to manage a scenario such as the incoming board chair’s company transfers him or her to a new position on the other side of the country?

If the board is not practicing good governance, and succession plans are chaotic or worse, non-existent, this may present an even greater risk to the organization’s sustainability than a lack of planning at the chief executive level. If your organization experiences a leadership transition, it may be hard to attract good candidates. Talented professionals interested in nonprofit senior leadership roles are careful to complete their due diligence, and they typically start with a review of the organization’s financial status and board governance practices.

As a new CEO, you can assess the senior team and make changes, moving people into different roles or out of the organization. Addressing a poorly performing board of directors is another matter. It is nearly impossible for a chief executive to make any rapid changes in the composition of a board, particularly if the number of directors is at maximum under the current bylaws. Good candidates may steer clear of an organization with a non-performing board.

Which organizations might be at risk? Nonprofits with

  •  boards that experience excessive turnover, poor governance practices and no orderly plan for recruiting and orienting new members
  •  boards where the majority of directors are high-powered members of the business community who are disengaged, or who serve on so many boards they lack the time to be effective for any one board;
  •  boards that are required to have a specific number of government or political appointees;
  •  founder led boards where the officers or the president have served for many years, the governing bylaws are outdated, don’t include term limits or a process for evaluating the board’s performance.

What processes work well? Here are some examples:

The synagogue board on which I serve has a comprehensive and orderly process for developing board members and exposing potential board leaders to all aspects of governing the synagogue. There are three Vice Presidents, and each has several committees under their supervision. The committees under each Vice President are progressively more comprehensive, with the First Vice President overseeing critical operational areas they must learn about before becoming President, such as Budget-Audit, Development and Fundraising, Facilities and Human Resources. Each Officer serves at least two years in their roles, with Treasurer and Secretary often serving longer if they don’t aspire to higher level leadership. By the time a board member becomes President, they are well grounded in all aspects of both board governance and synagogue programs and operations. They have the opportunity to build their leadership skills and connect broadly with committees and other constituents.

The board of a women’s funding federation rotates board members through the officer levels to develop leadership skills and organizational knowledge. Directors may spend one or two years in the Secretary or Treasurer roles, and two years are required in the Vice Chair and Board Chair roles. The immediate Past Chair spends another year on the board and focuses on board governance and recruitment. This type of progression enables directors to learn about the organization, develop relationships with donors and enhance their leadership skills. The immediate past Board Chair collaborates with current board and professional leadership to identify potential board leaders from among the directors, and works to engage new members, either through committees as a step to board membership, or directly onto the board if appropriate.

You don’t have to put these exact processes in place, but your board does need to think strategically about managing its own succession planning. Be proactive in putting a plan in place – it can benefit board recruitment and ensure a robust candidate pool if a leadership transition at the chief executive level occurs.

For more information about creating board or leadership succession and transition plans, contact TransitionWorks at 610-892-8035.

By Lesley Mallow Wendell