Succession planning is key to all organizations if they are going to remain sustainable. But so many times nonprofits forget or put off the decisions that go into creating a solid and actionable succession plan. This is a critical time for Michigan’s nonprofit sector to take a long hard look at succession planning. It should be an important part of each organization’s strategic planning, now and in the future.
Admittedly, succession planning is not easy. In fact, it can be uncomfortable and hard for boards and staffs to grapple with over time. The notion of who will take over the ship is not only important within an organization, it is something that funders look at when they consider investments and support of your organization. Having a succession plan in place shows that your board and staff leaders are paying attention to leadership transition.
Carve Out Time to Plan and Execute
Leadership succession is most often not an emergency – it’s not the fire that needs to be put out today, so it gets put off until tomorrow. The current demands that are placed on nonprofits can be overwhelming. This work requires some quiet, thoughtful time that organizations don’t often have, because they are constantly running as fast as they can. But we all have to carve out the time. [Nonprofits are facing increased demands for their services with increasingly fewer resources to accomplish them. See Nonprofit Finance Fund’s findings from 2014 State of the Sector survey: 80% of respondents reported increased demand, the 6th straight year of this finding.]
Where’s Your Back-Up Person?
In any organization, leadership transition is a destabilizing time; especially when an unexpected /emergency transition occurs. At Michigan Nonprofit Association we have seen this create a situation of great vulnerability for nonprofits, especially when there is not a deep bench of CEOs-in-waiting already on staff who are the logical next leaders. Start building a strong staff of future leaders and cultivate that talent.
You May Need a Consultant to Help Navigate the Discussion
Succession and leadership planning discussions can be emotional and often uncomfortable. Your board members may dance around this issue, not wanting to bring it up for fear of damaging their relationship with the current leader. Often using a 3rd party/consultant is the best way to approach transition planning in order to provide more objectivity. Bringing in a consultant requires a financial investment in the process, which could mean culling extra and unplanned expenses. Planning ahead is critical.
Choosing the next leader for your organization is a big deal. It requires knowing where the organization is going and what the future needs will be. This is fundamentally the role of the board, yet board members may be new or inexperienced. The planning process and an executive search process are time-consuming and generally infrequent events that only a few board members have experience with, so it’s not uncommon that everyone ‘puts it off’ until there’s a crisis. It may be common, but it isn’t prudent!
Similarly, CEOs/executive directors find it awkward to initiate the discussion – because they don’t want to unintentionally or prematurely signal to the board that they want to leave – so a strong relationship with the board chair can help. A candid conversation between the board chair and staff helps get many succession planning issues out in the open early.
At MNA, we continue to study the issues and challenges that our member organizations face. As you tackle succession and leadership planning and transitions, know that we are here to help you. You too can help us share this important issue with the field. If you have stories and best practices that you’d like to share, please send your stories me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
President & CEO
Michigan Nonprofit Association