We all love a good scare. It’s a little unhealthy really. Whether you pay strangers to jump out at you at an overpriced amusement park or sit on the edge of your seat as Michael (or is it Jason?) chases a terrified co-ed wearing a creepy mask and a chainsaw, we all love that little adrenaline rush that we get from a good scare. So, since Halloween is just around the corner, let’s help to get that blood pumping, shall we? Succession Planning!! (dun dun dunnnnnnnnn)
Look, we get it. We know why some of you skip out on our awesome Learning Labs or avoid our CauseCupid happy hours lest your board members or executive directors get nervous. But all too often we get called in when nonprofits are in trouble: a worst-case situation with no leader at the helm, uncertainty or disagreement about who the organization needs as the next executive director, and even distrust between factions of the board or staff. Fear of change is a powerful thing. No one wants to start succession discussions for fear of being perceived as “abandoning” a mission or unintentionally signaling dissatisfaction. We understand the instinct to ignore succession planning – or even run away like a five-year-old in a haunted house – so we’re giving you a few first steps that are valuable for your organization, reasonable to execute, and more comfortable as a starting point.
- Blame the Bogeyman
We know this is a tough conversation to initiate, so it’s fine to point to external reasons to start the process. The reality is succession planning is an important element of risk management for any organization. If you include risk management as an annual topic at a board meeting (and yes, you should), you can incorporate a kickoff to succession planning with one or more of the steps described below. Funders are also increasingly asking if grantees have a succession plan when they’re reviewing applications, and you want to be able to answer “yes” – so pointing to foundation requirements can also help prioritize the process.
- Anticipate the Ghoul Around the Corner
The root of most of the things we fear is uncertainty, so the best way to slay the dragon is to minimize uncertainty and seize some control of the situation. In succession planning, that means creating an emergency transition plan, which is basically a contingency plan in the event an executive director’s departure is sudden and unexpected. The key questions to ask to create an emergency transition plan are: Who would run the day-to-day operations: could you elevate a senior staff member as acting director or would you hire an outside interim director? Would your answer differ if the absence is temporary vs. permanent? If you elevate a current staff member, who would handle their workload? If you hire an interim, where and how would you source candidates? How, if at all, would you limit the authority of the acting/interim director for decision making and independent action? Do board members (particularly officers) have the capacity to provide more hands-on supervision and/or temporarily provide operational support? What process would you follow to hire a permanent replacement? How would you handle communications to key stakeholders?
- Sweep Up Your Cobwebs
There’s a lot of proactive housekeeping that can be done to make a transition (planned or unplanned) less disruptive. At the very least, make sure the executive director’s job description is complete and updated so someone stepping into the role has a starting point. You might even expand the typical job description to a task-level outline of the executive director’s key activities to make the details as clear as possible. It’s also critical to record key processes followed by the executive director and compile important documents and information only held by the executive director (including passwords!) – and then securely share with the board chair. Most importantly, identify key external relationships (donors, funders, partners, elected officials, etc.) solely held by the executive director and methodically make introductions to other board/staff to ensure multiple points of contact.
- Build Your Wolf Pack
The best way to lessen the pain of an executive transition is to invest in building a bench of strong leaders over time. Executive directors should make boards aware of high performing staff with leadership potential and encourage board members to foster relationships with key staff. Identifying opportunities for professional development and mentoring are also critical, both to retain talent and to cultivate future leaders for the organization. Some nonprofits formally identify a senior staff member as a successor to the executive director and groom that individual for the future; we’ve seen this approach work, but the process and dynamics need to be handled with careful consideration, sensitivity and investment.
- Gather Your Bag of Treats
It’s a fact: leadership transitions always require financial resources. The extra expenses might include compensation for an interim executive, fees for executive search, and professional development and training for key staff. In addition, if your current executive director is a strong fundraiser, you need to anticipate a possible dip in donations. And although this practice appears to be waning, some foundations still pause on awarding grants to organizations during leadership transitions. For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to work to increase operational reserves to bridge these possible gaps. Aiming for 10-15% of your annual budget as a “leadership transition rainy day fund” is a solid goal.
Succession planning is important for the health and sustainability of every nonprofit organization, and it’s also reassuring and empowering for the board of directors, executive director and all staff. While it’s a complex topic to navigate, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you start with the basics we’ve described.