We are entering into a time of great change concerning nonprofit leadership, but are CEOs/EDs and boards preparing for the executive exodus that is sure to come over the next couple of years. Both retention of administrative staff and succession of leadership, I believe, are two sides of the same coin. I think the debate starts with two questions:
- If a succession plan were in place and professional development made available would retention be so high in the nonprofit sector?
- Keeping in mind the priorities of different generational groups- How can nonprofits prepare for the next wave of leadership coming in (or moving up) to run them?
“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now” - Alan Lakein
At its very best, succession planning can provide organizations with a blueprint for sustainability that will help them develop and grow far into the future. A large number of Baby Boomer nonprofit executives are reaching retirement age, guaranteeing that “change” will impact our community organizations whether boards or stakeholders are ready or not. Managing succession proactively will do more than calm donors, volunteers, and operational staff; it will allow a nonprofit to seamlessly continue serving populations in need.
Daring to Lead 2006, a publication of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation, surveyed 1,900 nonprofit leaders and found that 75% planned on leaving their positions within the next five years.
The ideal practice is for a board, in partnership with the ED, to see succession planning as an essential governance responsibility related to its duty to provide for staff leadership. By cooperatively sharing the planning responsibilities an organization can map out how an executive transition can take place more efficiently and effectively. Some key components in preparing for nonprofit leadership succession include:
- Identify the critical leadership and management functions of the ED
- Board leadership takes responsibility for setting up a mutually agreeable departure date
- Address professional barriers associated with the departing ED, including, community acknowledgement of organizational change, donor concerns and insecurities, unfinished business/projects in the current job.
- Create a succession planning committee to provide oversight and to craft strategies/work plans for the board to review, ratify, and implement.
- Agree upon which functions should be covered by an interim director, limitations of their authority, and which functions a secondary manager should cover (resource development, internal operations, or programs/services).
Professional development is consistently mentioned as the area where many nonprofit personnel feel their organizations do not adequately provide or encourage. Retention in the nonprofit field is high already and many at the administrative level would rather change positions to take over a new organization rather than wait for leadership to step down at their current one. This trend leaves many nonprofits in an emergency state when an ED/CEO decides to call it quits. Often placing a board member into an interim role they do not want and existing management staff unprepared to take over. In a down economy professional development opportunities are usually some of the first line items cut from a budget. So how can nonprofits prepare current employees to become future leaders while at the same time plan for transitioning power within the organization, here are some ideas:
- Develop a cross-training plan for the identified back-ups that ensures they develop their abilities to carry on the ED’s key functions
- Encourage managers/directors/program staff to take advantage of professional development opportunities
- Include management team members in board meetings and make organizational decisions transparent
- Create a system of broadening relationships with grant makers and key donors to include key management staff
The generational groups following the Baby Boomers are very public in stating a preference for less hierarchy in an organization and for leadership structures to be more collaborative. They also say they will demand a better work/life balance, due in part to high levels of personal sacrifice and burnout they see in current executives. Organizations preparing for succession need to be aware that Generation X’ers and Millennials expect the latest electronic technologies to be available as a means to efficiency and productivity. If transitioning organizations cannot become flexible enough to change with this generational dynamic, younger leaders will bypass them for ones that will acknowledge their needs.
Although succession planning may be a difficult subject for an ED, staff, and board to face, experience suggests that it can turn an executive’s exit from a difficult challenge into an occasion for organizational growth and viability.
For some great information about nonprofit succession planning visit the Foundation Center at Foundationcenter.org
This article first appeared as a guest post on the #fundchat blog (http://www.fundchat.org). #Fundchat is a weekly conversation on Twitter where experts share, advise, and even consult on topics related to nonprofit fundraising and marketing. Follow the hashtag (#fundchat!) during 12 – 1 pm EDT to see the conversation in action.