Homework beckons for nonprofit boards

Studying up on succession plans can help organizations ace their biggest test

Our kids are going back to school; perhaps our board members should, too. Long before next Spring’s board retreats, members of nonprofit boards should start doing their homework about their organization’s leadership transition planning.

Such planning is not usually atop a new board member’s agenda when she or he accepts a board position. But, as we show in our forthcoming book, “When Leaders Leave,” perhaps it should be, as the presence or absence of a thorough leadership transition plan says a lot about the long-term health and resilience of a nonprofit organization.

Just as parents don’t want to be the ones rushing to the store the night before the first day of school, so too should new board members ask about and study up on their organization’s plans should the current leader decide to, or need to, depart suddenly.

A chapter in our new book, “When Leaders Leave,” captures what it takes to “Build a Great Board,” and how essential a vibrant, engaged board can be to an organization approaching a transition and creating a positive leadership legacy.

An engaged board can prevent a nonprofit organization’s internal resources – including exhaustible supplies of energy and enthusiasm – from being sapped by a leadership change. Alternatively, the tension and uncertainty that can accompany a poorly planned leadership transition can lead to high staff and board turnover, lost revenue, and missed opportunities for program development and growth.

So new board members can follow these basic guidelines for diligent board participation and stewardship:

  •  Study up on the bylaws. Which leads to…
  •  Use those bylaws effectively. The organization’s bylaws should spell out how often the board and its committees will meet, as well as how many board members there will be and how long officers will serve. (That last bit offers a regular opportunity to reinvigorate the board)
  • Distinguish between governance and operations. While the executive director oversees daily operational activities and is the board’s liaison to staff, the board’s role is limited to governance. But responsibilities like selecting and appointing the executive director, governing the organization, and acquiring sufficient resources indicate a need for a board that checks in more than a few times a year.
  • Adopt a system for conducting meetings. Good ol’ Robert’s Rules of Order has rescued many meetings from chaos.

And to these basic principles, we suggest ambitious new board members add doing their homework on the organization’s leadership transition planning.

Too many organizations stumble into a transition plan only after a leader has announced her or his pending departure. At that point, the need to plan for turnover at the top is literally unavoidable. But proactive transition planning should start much, much earlier, with leadership legacy planning and succession planning.

Leadership legacy planning provides the biggest landscape in which to view the inevitability of leadership transition, and crucially, the furthest horizon. An ongoing process for organizations whether or not they are planning on a leadership change, it helps the board align the legacies of the executive director and the organization.

Succession planning is a strategic overview of the steps necessary to ensure the organization’s capacity to thrive when the leader leaves. An emergency succession plan spells out what will happen under various scenarios, such as an unplanned emergency leave or a planned departure with long-term notice. Optimally, the succession plan will be reviewed yearly, in conjunction with the strategic plan.

There’s much more detail about these essential processes available in our forthcoming book, “When Leaders Leave.” Board members both old and new can help their organizations thrive if they do their homework now and bone up on leadership transition planning. They want their organizations to ace the test that is an unplanned change in leadership.