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Nonprofit Succession Planning: It's Not Just for the CEO

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I was two weeks into a six-month contract to help create and implement a more robust individual giving program when—oops!—the director of development in this one-person office left for greener pastures. Everything, and I mean everything in the development department came to a complete halt.

Gifts that came in did not get logged into the donor tracking system, thank you letters didn’t go out. Grant proposals got stuck in the pipeline; grant reports didn’t get submitted (and you know what that meant to next years’ grants). Let’s not even talk about the plan he and I had just started discussing.

As counsel, my job is to assess, advise, coach—but not to do the work. And without someone to do the work, things quickly get stuck on start.

This is not a unique story, alas. Turnover happens. And when it does, having a comprehensive succession plan will prevent a shutdown and allow your organization to keep on moving forward.

That said, according to a BoardSource study, more than 65% of nonprofits don’t have a succession plan—those that do typically focus only on the CEO. The emphasis of that plan is on who and how the CEO is replaced. That may be a commitment to cross-training, a plan for in-line succession, or a discussion as to when an interim is appropriate.

That, I believe, misses almost the entire story.

The CEO is not the only critical member of the organization.  Indeed, the smaller the organization—and most nonprofits are very small, indeed—the larger the percentage of employees (and board members!) who should be considered critical. You must have robust succession plans for every critical position. If your nonprofit has a staff of 5, you are too small to do serious cross training. It is unrealistic to think that you will have takeover talent in the wings. While there are times when an interim is ideal, for some positions—and development is one of those—interims can be problematic.

A succession plan—developed long before it is needed—creates a process that ensures the work of that employee can and will continue. Even when a suitable replacement is not at hand. What does that look like?

1. It starts before you hire, with a job description that you haven’t taken off the web or repurposed from the last search your organization had. It takes into consideration what this person needs to accomplish in the upcoming year or three. That means it must be updated regularly. Knowing what you need to have happen, you can more appropriately think about what experiences and skills are needed to ensure achievement.

2. Next, develop written metrics by which you will evaluate the person’s performance. Beyond evaluation, this ensures a clear plan of action that is measurable. It also helps to ensure that the next person will have the skills and expertise to be successful.

3. That plan, of course, is built on what is happening now and how it tracks with the organization’s strategic plan. When I was an on the ground fundraiser, I religiously documented everything I did. My goal was that when I left, my predecessor did not have to reinvent the wheel. In the event that my predecessor wasn’t hired for some months—a likely scenario—someone else could at least keep the wheels rolling. I didn’t call that succession planning, but it was.

4. Outline how communications, both internal and external, will be handled (and handled differently for:

  • A sudden succession plan when the incumbent leaves quickly
  • A planned succession when you have 3 months or more to replace the person in the position
  • An internal replacement, should you be so lucky to have that person on hand

5. How you are hiring your successor is critical. There are a number of issues you need to consider:

  • Is this a board or staff hire? Or is it a partnership? For the CEO it is very clear, but how involved does your board get with other senior staff? This needs to be clarified and agreed to.
  • Will it be done in house or are you hiring a search firm?
    • If the latter, now is the time to identify three or four firms you will consider. And as with everything, review these people yearly, making any additions or subtractions as needed
    • Will your search be local or national? If national, consider additional expenses.
  • If you do hire an interim, for how long?

6. And finally, what happens if nothing happens in the expected timeframe? In other words, what is your Plan B or contingency?

Just as your strategic plan does you no good if it sits on the bookshelf, succession planning must always be dynamic. Plans for replacing the CEO must be on the board agenda at least once a year.   Succession plans for other critical positions should be a topic at senior staff meetings on a regular basis.

Most nonprofits run lean and mean. Staff and boards are often hard-pressed to accomplish all that is on their respective plates. A sudden—or not-so-sudden—vacancy can cause havoc. Preparing for this eventuality before it happens will ensure not just succession but success.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to Young Horizons.

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