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Succession Planning: Leading by Sharing Power

Two hands holding puzzle piecesIn 1986, I killed my first nonprofit organization.

That wasn’t my plan. In fact, there wasn’t any plan.

When our vibrant, all-volunteer nonprofit was ready to hire its first employee, the board chose me. With staff in place, our group took a big step forward: more programming, new audiences, bigger impact.

While I was merrily running the organization, the board—which has been deeply engaged during the all-volunteer phase—gradually slipped away. As I realized much later, this was my mistake. By doing everything myself, I left little room for others to participate.

When I moved away after two years, the group dissolved—because I had become the organization. I failed the first test of leadership: How do I empower others, rather than doing it all myself?

This was decades before I ever heard the phrase succession planning.

Why plan for transitions? A quick exercise

When facilitating any sort of planning process, I often use the following exercise. Feel free try it.

Say to the group, “Imagine that you’re wildly successful at accomplishing your mission. You’ve changed the world! Because of that change, your organization is no longer needed. Congratulations—you won.”

Give this idea a moment to sink in. Then ask, “Best case scenario, how many years will that take?” You might instruct people to stand up and position themselves along a continuum, based on the number of years they’ve chosen. Encourage them to say why they chose that number.

Depending on the organization, the answers might range from 20 years to, “We need to be here forever.” Some nonprofits—those with perpetual missions, like hospitals, museums, and conservation land trusts—plan to be in business for a really long time.

Then ask the group, “How many of you expect to be around for the victory party?”

Here’s the point. If you’re not actively recruiting and empowering the next generation of organizational leaders, you’re flunking your mission. Lacking continuity, there’s no victory.

The looming nonprofit leadership gap

Many researchers have been predicting and tracking what they describe as, “The great Baby Boom retirement wave.”

In Daring to Lead, a 2011 national study prepared by CompassPoint, 74 percent of nonprofit executives surveyed had already given notice to their employers or anticipated leaving their jobs within five years.

Opportunity in Change, a 2017 report by The Boston Foundation and Third Sector New England (now called TSNE MissionWorks), notes that 78 percent of nonprofit leaders across New England expect to leave their positions by 2020. This includes executive directors, other leadership staff, and board members.

In the face of massive leadership turnover, the same study reports that 70 percent of nonprofit organizations don’t have a succession plan. Yikes!

Why are we failing at this?

I’ve observed entrenched leaders who feel threatened by transition planning, which they experience as a threat to their power. Who wants to be a lame duck?

Others are hanging on until retirement. Given modest nonprofit salaries, this can take a while.

Some long-term executive directors may be doing the work of two or three people, which creates financial challenges when it’s time to replace them.

Speaking as one Boomer to another, here’s what I would say, gently but firmly: Dude, it’s time to step aside and let the next generation take charge. Start planning for that.

Here’s another challenge: many nonprofits operate in crisis mode. They don’t perceive that they have enough bandwidth for long-term planning. I’m reminded Steven Covey’s instruction to spend 60 percent of your time on tasks that are important but not urgent—and that includes developing your next cadre of leaders.

To paraphrase author Kim Klein, “When you walk in the door in the morning, the first thing you should ask yourself is, ‘What am I going to do today to replace myself?’”

Three tips for leadership transitions

If you’re leading your organization (or perhaps you’re a board member overseeing that leader), consider the following suggestions.

  1. Encourage others to learn by trying out new skills. Be supportive, even when they fail. This generates a culture of creativity and trust, and builds leadership capacity throughout the staff.

  2. Think about this succession planning the way you might think about retirement planning. Set specific benchmarks and deadlines. For example, set monthly or quarterly goals for handing off key relationships with donors and funders.

  3. Create an “organizational will” for what you want to leave behind when you step down. You might brainstorm this document with other internal leaders, then share it broadly throughout the organization.

This post is reprinted from the Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money Blog.

Andy RobinsonAndy Robinson is author of How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone; What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money (co-authored with Andrea Kihlstedt); and The Board Member’s Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances (co-authored with Nancy Wasserman).

Topics: Nonprofit management Nonprofit leadership