By Robyn Ezzell, Manager, Nonprofit Executive Search
A board member at a nonprofit said recently, “No one wants to be a board chair when the executive director decides to retire or take another job.”
Many nonprofit organizations enjoy a long, comfortable relationship with their CEOs, but a recent survey showed 70 percent of nonprofit executive directors say they plan to leave their positions within the next five years. If that weren’t concerning enough, according to BoardSource only 27 percent of nonprofits say they have a written succession plan in place.
An executive director change at a nonprofit, of course, affects employees and the board. But it also can influence volunteers, donors, sponsors and collaborators. And perhaps most importantly, it can negatively impact recipients of the organization’s services. Succession planning will help ensure that there is as little disruption as possible when a transition in leadership occurs.
Departure-Defined Succession Plan
Nonprofit succession planning is designed to ensure leadership continuity in key positions and to retain and develop knowledge, capital and relationships for the future. Board members, the CEO and key staff all play a role in succession planning.
A good first step is for the board to appoint a committee to address issues that will arise with a CEO departure, such as:
- Is an interim director needed, or is there talent within the organization to temporarily fill the leadership gap?
- How do we delegate authority during the interim?
- How can we cross-train staff to assume certain duties during the interim?
- What is the timeline for recruiting and hiring a new director?
- Who will handle the recruiting and hiring?
- Does our onboarding process ensure a quick succession once a new director is hired?
Leveraging their contacts and expertise, board members can play a significant role during a leadership transition. Executive directors also have a responsibility in succession planning, including the development of key staff and maintaining a culture that encourages professional development.
Emergency Leadership Transition Plan
Should an executive director abruptly resign, be terminated or otherwise be unable to lead, the nonprofit board and staff must spring into action to manage the day-to-day tasks that keep the organization running.
An effective succession and transition plan will outline board and staff responsibilities should an unexpected transition occur. These duties include communication, financial oversight, interim management and executive search.
The Board Chair and Board Treasure should be key point people during this time and proactively communicating when appropriate to all stakeholders. Interim management is another element of succession and transition planning.
FGP specializes in regional and national searches for nonprofit organizations in need of executive and senior leadership. We work with human services, animal welfare, conservation, education, faith-based ministries and other cause-related and philanthropic charities. Our clients range from major foundations to national charitable coalitions to small local nonprofits. Additionally, we work with quasi-governmental and governmental agencies, and consult with candidates in the for-profit sector seeking to transition into the nonprofit arena.