Most nonprofit organizations know they need a succession plan for their executive director, and many have one in place. But managing transition within the board itself is a different challenge, and fewer organizations maintain board succession plans.
Without a plan, board transitions can put nonprofits in a vise. They’re pushed to manage each change as it happens, whether by a known retirement date or by a sudden withdrawal.
If your nonprofit doesn’t have a plan, the following suggestions will help you create one. If you already have a playbook, use these to assess its performance.
Why have a plan?
Musical groups know that the effect of the whole is greater than the sum of individual sounds. Likewise, a nonprofit that consciously renews, refreshes, and balances its board will produce a stronger and more effective leadership body.
That takes a plan, not surprise last-minute nominations at an annual meeting. A committee with a road map can forecast the organization’s needs, chart the current board members’ terms, assemble sources for new recruits, and take proactive and timely steps to prepare the transitions to come.
Parts of the plan
Create a committee to manage the project. A small group can organize better discussions and follow-through. It could include staff as well as board members.
Evaluate the current bylaws. Do they provide a clear way to elect or remove board members and officers? Do they mandate term limits? If your committee decides the bylaws need changing, it can propose them to the board.
Schedule regular board self-assessments. Discuss recent successes and setbacks, as well as future challenges. Then consider the aggregate strengths of the current board—skills and knowledge, reputations in the community, and diversity of personalities and circumstances. Rank possible departures in terms of their expected timing and impact on the board.
Develop priorities for leadership. Focus not so much on individuals but on your nonprofit’s needs. Start from the board’s self-assessment conclusions and the imminence of individual departures. If a board member is planning to resign, conduct interviews and leverage their experience for the succession project.
Decide what you’re looking for. Success on a nonprofit board requires a passion for the mission, and not just in general. A prospective board member may be deeply committed to dance, but less so to your specific mission to reach underserved communities—and that may be a deal breaker.
Beyond such fundamentals, your needs will vary depending on anticipated gaps in your current board. Who’ll retire first—your best investment mind, your most inspiring speaker, or the board member who knows everybody in town?
Assemble a list of promising recruits, inside and outside the organization, and begin vetting those candidates’ qualifications.
Organize your approach to individuals. Assemble talking points and relevant information, and determine who should approach each candidate. Your ambassadors to each prospect must be ready to:
• Present an inspiring vision for the future.
• Explain why you’re reaching out to them.
• Explain your organization’s financial situation. If it’s uncertain, be clear about it—isn’t that why you need strong leadership?
• Describe what board membership means, and don’t sugarcoat it—how much commitment to activity, meetings, committee work, and financial support does your organization expect?
Follow up with a complete package. Leave no doubt about:
• The organization’s history and mission.
• The board’s duties: ensuring compliance with regulations, maintaining policies and procedures, and overseeing programs that advance the mission.
• The board’s legal obligations: duties of care, loyalty, and obedience.
• A typical yearly calendar of meetings and conference calls.
• Financial documents as appropriate: budget, balance sheet, financial statements, audit results, and tax returns.
Have an emergency plan. While your succession committee takes these methodical steps, get ready for surprise departures as well. A bare-bones plan should identify one or two best prospects for membership on the board to fill a sudden gap.
Hire independent help?
Consider outside help. An experienced nonprofit consultant can help your succession committee focus both at the outset and when challenges arise. An outsider’s impartial contributions and diplomatic skills can also help your committee avoid standoffs between hardened viewpoints.
Board succession planning is easy to overlook when there’s no crisis looming, but that’s the time to begin and maintain your plan. Whatever action is required, and when, depends on your board’s unique circumstances.
Take these methodical steps now. Whether your first succession challenge is down the road or is posed by surprise next week, the knowledge you gain will make the job easier and the transition smoother.