Nonprofit Board Succession Planning

Nicholas J. Price
For those who have served on nonprofit boards for several years, it’s likely that they’ve heard much about nonprofit board succession planning. In fact, they’ve probably been told at one time or another something along the lines of, “Welcome to our board. Your first duty is to find your replacement.” That phrase often comes as a surprise to newcomers. The reality is that nonprofit boards usually have term limits. They also often have limits on the number of terms that board directors can serve. These are good practices because best practices for nonprofit boards encourage boards to refresh their boards every so often. Turnover gives nonprofits an opportunity to bring in people with new ideas who will continually challenge and grow the organization. A mistake that many nonprofit boards make is to wait until a board member’s term is up and then begin looking for a suitable replacement. This practice decreases the size of the board, leaving it without the necessary skills for what could turn out to be long periods of time. A better practice is for nonprofit boards to develop written succession plans and to be recruiting continually to ensure that the board seats are nearly always full. The size of the board doesn’t play a factor in whether boards should participate in succession planning. However, while best practices for nonprofit boards support the notion of succession planning, a survey of nonprofit organizations showed that only 27% of boards had a formal, written succession plan in place.

Best Practices for Nonprofit Boards Support Succession Planning

A variety of issues may surface that lead nonprofit board directors to step down from their positions. Illness, injury, death, family issues, change of geographical location, conflict of interest and retirement are just a few of the reasons that nonprofit board members leave boards. Nonprofit boards that fail to participate in succession planning leave their boards vulnerable to a lack of board directors. Best practices support succession planning even when the board has no impending vacancies. Board turnover creates opportunities for transformative change. Transitions are always easier for nonprofit boards when there’s a defined, written plan for everyone to follow. Best practices for nonprofit succession planning are beginning to include the use of electronic tools, such as a secure board portal for board director recruitment, collecting resumes and for use in collaboration for board succession planning committee work. A board portal system offers a secure platform for board work that ensures confidentiality.

Best Practices Encourage Diverse and Skilled Boards

The best board decision-making comes when board directors bring many perspectives to the board table. Many perspectives join to form well-equipped leadership. Diversity is an important consideration when composing the board. Succession planning should consider such factors as gender, age, race, ethnicity and skills to form a well-composed board. One of the most important duties of nonprofit boards is to hire and monitor a strong and capable executive director. The multiple perspectives of board directors help to identify and recruit the best leadership talent.

Emergency Succession Planning

Leadership transitions often create troubling times for nonprofit boards. A board vacancy sometimes leaves boards vulnerable to environmental stressors. When notable leaders leave, funders may become concerned about the loss of institutional knowledge that leaves with them. In response, some may be apt to take a “wait and see” approach to see if the nonprofit can land on its feet. To better manage emergency vacancies, nonprofit boards should consider adopting an emergency leadership transition plan. The plan should include addressing timely delegation of authority and duties when a board director or executive director steps down unexpectedly.

Who Is Best to Lead Succession Planning?

It’s less important for nonprofit boards to have conformity with who leads succession planning than it is to ensure that they follow through with succession plans. Each nonprofit has its own strengths and weaknesses. Thus, boards themselves are the best judge of who should lead succession planning efforts. Some boards find it best to establish a board development committee or governance committee and delegate the task to them. Another option is to assign the task to the board director who is likely to become the next board chair. This person is often referred to as the board chair-elect. By designating a board member as the board chair-elect, it gives the board clear direction about who will succeed the board chair. This arrangement also provides the board chair-elect with an opportunity for training and mentoring so they’re ready to take over the position when it becomes available. The Alliance for Nonprofit Management did a survey that showed that 51% of board chairs admitted that they had not taken any specific action to prepare themselves for becoming a chair. In fact, the survey indicated that the majority of board chairs hadn’t even read an article about how to chair a board.

Nonprofit Board Succession Planning Tips 

Nonprofit succession planning relies on getting buy-in from the full board and asking them to be intentional about it. Succession plans should include identifying current and future challenges and recruiting for the corresponding leadership skills and abilities that the board will need to oversee the organization now and in the future. Best practices for nonprofit board terms suggest that boards should have staggered terms to avoid complete turnover at one time. With this in mind, the board should draft a timeline for planned board term vacancies so the succession planning team will know ahead of time when vacancies are pending. Board development is a key factor in recruiting board directors. The team should look for board director recruits who are capable of serving in the board chair or board committee positions. As nominees join the board, the board or board development committee should be seeking to expand the new board members’ leadership skills with continued board education. New board directors will eventually form a cadre of future leaders. As transitions begin to take place, it’s easy to forget about the importance of communication. Thoughtful communications make transitions easier. Board succession plans should include defining who will communicate changes to stakeholders and what the format for communication should be. Timing of communication is another consideration. Nonprofit boards will need to consider whether they should communicate transition plans to stakeholders before, during or after transitions. Finally, it’s important for boards to assist board members who are leaving the board to make a smooth exit transition. Succession planning teams may offer directors who are leaving an opportunity to take part in recruitment efforts or to stay on for a while to help with transitioning. In both cases, it paves the way for smooth onboarding.
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Nicholas J. Price
Nicholas J. Price is a former Manager at Diligent. He has worked extensively in the governance space, particularly on the key governance technologies that can support leadership with the visibility, data and operating capabilities for more effective decision-making.