Leadership and Succession Planning

May 15, 2019 | Article

By Karen Jess

Leadership is defined as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.”

Would you want to fly on an airplane without a pilot or sign up for a class without an instructor? Of course not—you need someone to be in charge of these events, or you set yourself up for failure. The same is true for the nonprofit world. Organizations need someone at the top to lead them by setting the tone and guiding the organization to success

The executive director or CEO is the cornerstone of every nonprofit organization. As trusted, strong leaders, CEOs give nonprofits a sound footing that extends to all other areas of the organization in one way or another. When an executive director or CEO leaves the organization, whether planned or unexpected, the foundation of the organization can become unstable. Executive succession planning is a part of the core organizational process—an important part that should not be overlooked.

Whether a transition occurs due to an unexpected vacancy or the anticipated transition of a long-tenured leader, being deliberative and thoughtful and having a plan in place can help a nonprofit weather the inevitable challenges of leadership transition.

When executive directors leave, they typically take valuable knowledge with them. When that knowledge isn’t available to the new executive director, an organization can experience serious issues. Loss of strong and effective leadership can slash morale, reduce productivity, result in lost donations and even threaten the organization’s mission. Nonprofit organizations must always be prepared for unexpected leadership transition. Change can be a good thing when organizations actively plan for it. Planning will make the process cleaner, smoother and more transparent.

According to BoardSource, a nonprofit board planning organization, there aren’t enough nonprofit organizations taking succession planning seriously. BoardSource cites that only 27% of nonprofit organizations have a written plan for executive director or CEO succession currently in place, as reported in the Leading with Intent survey.

The National Council of Nonprofits offers the following list of tips to assist your nonprofit plan for leadership transition when (not if) it happens:

Ten Planning Tips for Leadership Transition

  1. Gain the commitment of board and staff to manage transition intentionally.
  2. Identify current challenges and those that lie ahead, and the corresponding leadership qualities that are needed to navigate the challenges successfully.
  3. Consider whether placing an interim leader at the helm is the right path for your nonprofit.
  4. Draft a timeline for leadership successions that are planned.
  5. Adopt an Emergency Leadership Transition Plan to address the timely delegation of duties and authority whenever there is an unexpected transition or interruption in key leadership.
  6. Identify leadership development opportunities for staff and board members to expand their leadership skills so that the organization will have a "deeper bench" of future leaders.
  7. Cross-train current staff to minimize the disruption from unexpected staffing changes.
  8. Make plans to adequately support newly-placed employees, such as with coaching, mentoring, and defining goals.
  9. Communicate: What will your organization say to stakeholders before, during, and after a transition of leadership? Thoughtful communications are needed in order to support the staff and organization during the transition process.
  10. On board deliberately: Help new board chairs and chief staff leaders feel confident and find their own voices.

For more information on how to plan for leadership transition, contact the Eide Bailly nonprofit team today.

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