Succession Planning: Preparing NPOs for the Future

By | April 25, 2012

Guest Post by Ian M. Adair

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? I believe that retention and succession are two sides of the same coin.

The debate starts with two questions:

  1. If a succession plan were in place and professional development made available would retention be so high in the nonprofit sector?
  2. 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 nonprofit 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 more information about nonprofit succession planning visit the Foundation Center

Ian Adair (@IanMAdair) has 15 years of experience fundraising in education and nonprofits.  He serves as Resource Development Director for Boys & Girls Clubs of Thurston County and is the Principal Consultant for Ian is a blogger, professional trainer, and motivational speaker.

5 thoughts on “Succession Planning: Preparing NPOs for the Future

  1. BrendanKinney

    Great article IanMAdair ! Despite the study you mention, I wonder if you think that due to the economy and other factors, if the baby boomer generation will hold onto leadership positions to wait out the recession and build back some of their retirement they may have lost in the downturn?

    1. ianmadair

       @BrendanKinney Thanks for your comments. The study was done in 2006 and predicted a high rate of retirement by 2011, but then 2008 happened and the economy fell into a recession. I agree with your statement concerning nonprofit leaders waiting things out, the recession most likely delayed things by 3 or 4 years. Hopefully giving NPOs time to think about succession planning and cultivating current staff. This would push the previous prediction of the study to about 2014 or 2015. Not long to implement a culture of encouraging professional development, administrative cross training, and preparing for the next wave of generational leaders.

  2. NickSava

    Preach on @ianmadair ! Succession planning and professional development are definitely 2 things ignored a lot in NPO sector. We all tend to spin our wheels worrying about the “NOW” and keeping our doors open, and lose sight of the long-term vision. This mentality is penny-wise, pund-foolish (or whatever the phrase is) though. 
    Oh and you are a motivational speaker?!  Quick give me a couple of words to inspire me to clean up this budget for a grant application I’m working on!

    1. BrendanKinney

       @NickSava  @ianmadair Nick, I couldn’t agree more. It’s so easy to focus on the shiny bright object when the real work is developing strategy and thinking about what’s next. So many distractions!

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