Nothing Succeeds Like…Succession Planning

| by Tom McGuire

Have you noticed that lots of nonprofits are celebrating 25th and 30th anniversaries these days?  The early to mid-1980’s must have been an auspicious time to start a nonprofit.  Thirty years later we’re recognizing the success of those organizations and the impact of their work.

It also seems like we’re witnessing the retirement of a whole generation of nonprofit leaders who came of age (professionally speaking) in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and who led the largest growth spurt in the history of our sector.  In many organizations, a single individual, oftentimes the founder, is leaving after serving as the face of the organization since its inception.  (In the past 8 months I have attended retirement celebrations for at least three executive directors who led their organization for over 30 years.)

This phenomenon should not come as a surprise: for several years, studies by national organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and CompassPoint have projected that between 65% and 75% of all nonprofit executives will retire as the first baby boomers reach their 60’s.  Thus, the odds are better than even that your organization will face a major leadership transition in the next few years.

Will you be ready? Succession planning should be an ongoing process in all nonprofits, but regrettably, it rarely is.  The reasons cited most frequently for neglecting this critical activity are:  money (“We can’t afford to divert resources to something like that…”), size (“We’re not big enough to spend time on that…”), weak relations between board and staff, the anxiety that accompanies any discussion about change, and so on.

Most nonprofits agree that strategic planning is a crucial part of an efficient, impactful operation.  Why, then, would they neglect to incorporate into their plans one of the most important decisions in the life of every organization – the selection of, and orderly transition to a new leader?

Here are some basic concepts that Armstrong McGuire has applied successfully with clients that are anticipating a change in leadership.  First, succession planning:

  • Requires a strong partnership, built on trust, between board and staff
  • It is a clear sign of a healthy organization
  • Thoughtful succession planning has major appeal to volunteers and donors (particularly institutional donors) because it can minimize (or eliminate) the anxiety inherent in change.

How can succession planning benefit your organization?

  • It can develop the overall “bench strength” of the organization
  • It will create a pipeline of effective leaders (this applies primarily to larger organizations)
  • It will prepare any size organization for unexpected emergencies
  • It will prepare both staff and board for change that is inevitable.

Today’s PhilanthropyBiz is not intended to present a comprehensive description of succession planning, but rather to introduce it to organizations that may not have considered it – and to underscore its importance to all our readers.  Here are several low-cost (or no cost) things that any organization can do to put itself on the path to a healthy succession in leadership:

  • Encourage staff to attend seminars, conferences, and other professional opportunities to interact with their peers.  Nonprofit leaders must be able to nurture and develop the strengths of their staff members
  • Create occasions for staff to interact with board members
  • Assign creative responsibilities to senior staff, allowing them to discover and utilize their individual talents
  • Mentor staff in all appropriate ways, especially in building relationships with the board.  These relationships will benefit both the board member and the staff member…and ultimately the organization itself.

These are just a few of the ways your organization can begin to dispel the threat of a leadership transition and discover the value of intentional succession planning.  Has your organization begun such a process?  Join our conversation and let us know what has worked best for you.


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