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Best practices for succession planning for executive committee members of nonprofit boards are developing and retaining internal candidates and integrating an emergency succession plan. Case studies of executive succession planning by Community Builders Southeast and the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers have been provided. More details can be found below.

Best Practices for Succession Planning for Executive Committee Members of Nonprofit Boards of Trustees

1: Developing and Retaining Internal Candidates.

  • Before sourcing outside the organization, it is recommended to consider the talent that exists internally
  • It is important that all the nonprofits use the available resources like the staff to gain a strategic future view and develop the succession plan.
  • Annual performance reviews can be a good way to evaluate current employees and volunteers to determine if anyone is suited for a leadership position. The vetting process should be systematic and rigorous, based on competency models.
  • Even though potential candidates may not be qualified immediately, it is important to note that the situation could change in the future.
  • Nonprofit organizations are advised to give potential candidates rating scales to determine whether they are ready now or whether they will be ready in the future. Some candidates might be ready later if the board invests training and money in them. Boards should start grooming candidates that have most or all of the qualifications by offering them training in their weak areas.
  • This can be achieved after identifying the gaps in abilities and skills between the current leader and what is desired in a future leader.
  • Once the board identified candidates from the group, it is recommended that training starts right away.
  • If there is a nominating committee, they should collect resumes for consideration, actively seeking and vetting candidates for board membership on a continual basis.
  • In line with normal operations, the succession plan should be revisited and updated periodically. For example, the review can be integrated into the annual evaluation of the current leader.
  • Open conversations among the board members can help with identifying emerging leaders within the organization. Once they are identified, the board should provide them with regular guidance on their career path, emphasizing the skills they need to focus on.
  • This was chosen as a best practice because executive research firm Spencer Stuart states that succession can only be effective if it is regularly assessed and analyzed. It is through this regular emphasis that prospective candidates within the organization can be identified.
  • American Prarie Reserve’s Board Chair George Matelich emphasized the need to retain talent within the organization, citing the example of Alison Fox, the current CEO, who joined the organization more than a decade before taking up her current role.
    • “It is really rare to have the successor grow up inside the organization. We had to make it clear to Ali that she had the chance to do this. We didn’t just sit quietly and hope she wouldn’t leave. We told her that this could happen, and we worked with her at her reviews to help develop her. We were doing everything we could to hang on to our most viable candidate.”

2: Integrating an Emergency Succession Plan

  • Many leaders reference their emergency succession plans when something catastrophic happens.
  • An emergency succession plan is a list of matching orders and protocols to be followed if the leader is disabled, dies, resigns, or leaves without notice.
  • Every nonprofit’s board of trustees should have a document that spells out the course of action in case a tragedy or unexpected event happens.
  • An emergency succession plan can provide calm and stability at a time of struggle.
  • It lays out the tasks and responsibilities that need to be finished in the short term, and by whom. Also, the plan includes a current inventory of service providers, critical records, and key stakeholders.
  • At Earthjustice, a nonprofit dedicated to litigating environmental issues, the Board’s Treasurer was responsible for creating the emergency succession plan with a checklist of issues that should be included. These included:
    • “What are management’s signature authorities? If the President has the primary relationship with a donor, does anyone else have a relationship with them? Who would be the interim leaders? Who would perform the key functions of the President in their absence?”
  • This process set the stage for if and when a more planned transition was necessary.
  • At Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, there is a rigorous plan in the event of an emergency. It includes critical information like financial details and passwords that are required to keep operations running.
  • The need for an emergency succession plan for a nonprofit board of trustees has been widely documented and researched, making it a best practice.
  • The Conservation Consulting Group States that the time invested in the creation of an emergency succession plan will “pay for itself many times over” when an organization is rocked by the sudden loss of key leadership.
  • The emergency succession planning process gives executives an opportunity to examine current job responsibilities and leadership structure.
  • According to the National Council of Nonprofits, an emergency leadership transition plan should be adopted to address the effective delegation of authority and duties when there is an unexpected interruption or transition in key leadership.

Case Studies of Succession Planning for Executive Committee Members of Nonprofit Boards of Trustees

1: Community Builders Southeast

  • The aging executive director informed the Community Builders’ board that he would retire in three years. From the outside, the organization seemed to be doing well programmatically and breaking even. However, the board’s chair and other executive members felt that there was a need for a more strategic thinker because the organization was drifting.
  • Generally, the board members envisioned less government support, which would require major program changes. They doubted that their current executive could guide them though such as huge change.
  • On the other hand, some board members had varying perspectives. The board chair was an action-oriented guy. The treasurers wanted leadership like that for the executive that the board had 10 years before. Finally, the governance chair led a different nonprofit and was becoming impatient with the executive of this one.
  • Rather than doing nothing, overreacting, or terminating the executive, the board chose to consider its options.
  • There was some division surrounding what to do next. While some board members wanted to do nothing as they waited for the executive director to be ready to leave so that they could do a search, the board chair, and some members felt that doing nothing was very risky. From their experience, succession planning was the best option. Research on how to do nonprofit succession planning led them to a firm that offered the services.
  • The offering included a review of key functions, roles, management positions, and job descriptions. This would also involve an emergency backup plan for the director and other senior board members. Most importantly, the board members would create a succession policy, deciding on the preference for an external search or internal promotion for the new executive when the transition happened.
  • The board chose to focus on succession planning to be thoughtful about the possibility of internal succession and leader continuity. Succession planning was done while focusing on organizational sustainability. It embarked on a wider planning process, looking at strategy in the context of leadership, resources, and culture.
  • The prospect of a sudden and unexpected transition scared staff and managers, resulting in rumors and anxiety. Working with the executive director towards understanding how succession planning would be done together with the roles of the board ensured that some anxiety and distractions were reduced.
  • The unpacking of board positions (key roles, relationships, functions, and possible backups in case of an emergency) helped provide a better understanding of the current roles and how they were progressing.
  • Some members revealed that they were interested in positions within other organizations. This was a helpful insight as the board started to consider the possibility of internal succession.
  • Succession planning led to a written, board-approved succession policy and an emergency backup plan for some executive members.
  • The board decided to source the executive director internally, offering the COO this position on an incremental basis. Eighteen months before the current executive director was to retire, the COO was promoted to the president so that she could be more involved and work more with the board. Also, she was able to handle the responsibilities of reporting organizational results and implementing the strategic plan.
  • The board navigated a difficult situation, achieving a good ending for the retiring executive and a great beginning for a new director who met the present and future needs of the organization.

2: Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers (ABAG)

  • The purpose of the plan is to make sure that the organization’s leadership has enough information and a strategy for the effective management of ABAG whenever the executive director cannot fulfill their duties.
  • The board authorizes the Board Chair to implement the succession plan’s terms in case there is a planned or unplanned short term absence and the Executive Director should inform the board of such an event and plan accordingly.
  • As soon as it is practical after the notification of an unplanned short-term absence, succession steps can begin being taken. A temporary absence lasts for 30 days or fewer while a temporary short-term absence lasts between 30 and 90 days.
  • Following the notification of an unplanned temporary or short-term absence, the board should summon an Executive Committee that affirms the procedures described in the emergency plan or changes them if necessary.
  • The plan lists the Executive Director’s roles, together with the temporary staffing strategy for each role.
  • In case there is a short-term absence, the executive committee decides whether the temporary succession plan is sufficient for the specific period.
  • Depending on the expected duration of absence, the predicted return date, and accessibility of the current executive director, the executive committee may select an Acting Executive Director and continue implementing the Temporary Staffing Strategy.
TDM

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