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Organizational Management

Nonprofit Succession Planning: 50 Practical Tips

Author: Sayana Izmailova
April 12, 2021
🕑 6 min read

Last month, a board member from a Lawyer’s Association reached out to me because their president was planning to retire.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t gone through a transition before and didn’t know where to find a new president. She asked me if I had any tips to help her association through the process.

Over the years, I’ve spoken with dozens of board members about their succession planning processes and compiled every tip I’ve learned into this gigantic list. I shared it with the Lawyer’s Association who used it to find a great candidate in a place they didn’t think to look (their own members). They also used the tips to create a solid transition plan. Now they feel fully prepared for their current president to retire and the new one to take over.

I thought it would be a good idea to publish the tips I’ve learned for anyone else looking to improve their board’s succession planning process.

Why Is Succession Planning Important to Nonprofit Boards?

A board succession plan may not seem necessary when all roles are filled and everything is running smoothly. But at any point, your board chair or any board member may choose to end their term early, and you want to be prepared.

Having a plan in place will ensure that your organization will be able to quickly and efficiently find the right candidate to replace the departing board member, as well as ensure a smooth transition.

A great succession plan will help:

  • Find the best candidate for the role
  • Ensure diversity on your board
  • Ensure that institutional knowledge is passed down to the incoming board member
  • Ensure that the new board member understands and is aligned with the organization’s mission, vision and values
  • Ensure that the new board member is a good cultural fit with the rest of the board
  • Equip the incoming board member with everything they need to succeed in the role
  • Ensure that the organization is able to continue following its strategic plan and advancing its mission without any interruptions

Read More:How to Build an Effective Nonprofit Board: The Complete Guide

50 Tips for Nonprofit Succession Planning

These are organized by when they fit into the succession planning process, ranging from what you can start doing right now, up until when you onboard your new board leader.

What You Can Do Now

  1. Define the culture of your organization so that everyone is clear on what a good candidate will possess.
  2. Ensure that the organization has a very clear vision, so that business objectives don’t drastically sway from one leader to the next.
  3. Encourage risk taking, experimentation, education, and training to help cultivate leaders from within your current team.
  4. Give performance feedback and appraisals to current team members to determine who might be a good leadership fit among them.
  5. Evaluate the age of your board. Many Baby Boomers are retiring, so preemptively looking for leadership roles can save a lot of time if multiple positions retire at once.
  6. Develop a culture of shared information among the board so that information doesn’t leave with the last leader.
  7. Create a handbook of all your nonprofit’s knowledge that is easily accessible to anyone in the organization, so information doesn’t get lost from one role to the next.
  8. Facilitate a mentorship program between your executive director, board, volunteers, and members. This can help nurture members into board members and board members into leaders.
  9. Have board members, employees and volunteers conduct 360-evaluations to keep ongoing communication between leadership and staff.
  10. Evaluate your organization’s values and business goals. In the case of a dispute among board members, you can always refer back to your organization’s purpose to guide the correct decision.
  11. As a caution, ensure you know what to do if a legal situation arises.
  12. List out all the current challenges of the board and the leadership qualities needed to overcome them.
  13. Store all documents in a shareable folder, such as Google Drive, so anyone can easily gain access.

Planning for Succession

  1. Have the current leader rewrite their own job description based on their experience of the work involved.
  2. Create a volunteer position specifically to help with succession planning.
  3. Read succession planning case studies.
  4. Consult this Nonprofit Executive Succession Planning Toolkit.
  5. Call the board of a similar organization and ask if they have any tips or strategies.
  6. Assign each task in your succession plan an estimated amount of time needed, so you know when to begin and how far through you are.
  7. Craft an Emergency Succession Plan.
  8. Always have an idea of a potential candidate who can step up to the board in case of emergency.
  9. Have a speech prepared in the event of a sudden emergency to communicate with members/the public.
  10. Assess which individuals will make the organization most vulnerable if they leave and develop contingency plans specifically around them.
  11. In your contingency plan, budget for extra time and expenses should something happen.
  12. Create a document of FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions ahead of time to give out to members during a succession.

Tips for When Your Board Leader Announces Their Departure

  1. Conduct an exit interview with the previous leader. Often this can be an emotional experience, but you will learn information about the role and processes that you might not find out otherwise.
  2. Nominate a temporary head of the board between succession.
  3. Seek the help of a consultant or adviser.

Tips for the Transition Period

  1. Archive the current leader’s email account and make it available for the next leader.
  2. Keep the old leader on call as an adviser.
  3. Audit the leadership role by creating a tally of every single task the last past leader was doing. Often a leader will take on more responsibility than they can handle. Divert some of this work to your board or volunteers so the new leader can focus on the vision and direction of the organization instead of the administrative work.
  4. If you need help finding a new leader, utilize the reach of your board and members by asking them to post on social media that you’re searching for a candidate.
  5. When searching for a new leader, post a job description on LinkedIn/Indeed/Monster/Workopolis, or one of many other job boards.
  6. Approach other similar organizations to yours in other cities and states when searching for a candidate.
  7. Be patient. Rushing into hiring a new leader can backfire in the long run.
  8. If you’re not attracting the right candidates, consider offering a higher compensation package. A more successful leader may be worth the extra expense.
  9. Have the board conduct an interview with the new candidates as a group to see how they function in a team environment.
  10. When interviewing candidates, focus on their soft skills and personality fit with the board rather than the hard skills. Hard skills can be learned, while soft skills will help them succeed in your organization.
  11. Be transparent about your process. Secrets can create politics within your board and members.

Tips for When You’ve Found a New Leader

  1. Give the new leader a trial period in which they have to prove their decision making skills before you fully hire them.
  2. Bring the new leader in for a training day with the current leader a month prior to the transition and prepare a solid orientation program for them.
  3. Have a new leader start early so there’s an overlap between roles.
  4. To help the new leader, compile a list of all personal/professional connections that the board has and what information/projects they’re experts in. This will help the new leader know who to contact when executing projects.
  5. Have an “emergency” contact that a new leader can call any time with any question (some boards call theirs, “Succession Planning 911”).
  6. Use this free Organization Chart Builder to formalize your board and give the new leader a reference guide to who does what.
  7. Send an email to all connections and members explaining the transition and introducing the new leader.
  8. Encourage the new leader to re-establish relationships with all the past leader’s connections by calling/emailing them to personally introduce themselves.
  9. Introduce a new leader by going on a team retreat to make them more comfortable with the transition and to build excitement within the team.
  10. Give your new leader some room to fail in the first six months, suggests the Peel Leadership Centre. Transitioning into a new leadership position, culture, staff team, and organization is not easy and they will not always get it right from the start.
  11. Have an exit strategy if things go awry with a new leader.

I hope that you find this list helpful when creating the succession planning model for your board. Be sure to also check out these 6 tips for things to plan for during a nonprofit board transition:

Do you have any more tips for nonprofit succession planning? Let us know in the comments!

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