Can my organization properly respond to a succession emergency? Are we preparing emerging leaders to move up in the organization and fill future vacancies? Succession planning is a topic that keeps many nonprofit leaders up at night with questions like these.
In 2016, Campbell & Company interviewed over a dozen leaders in environmental and conservation organizations to explore challenges facing the sector. Succession planning emerged as a trending topic in these conversations, so we decided to dive deeper in 2018.
We spoke with 12 representatives—including board members, incoming leaders, and outgoing leaders—from five conservation-related organizations to learn about their experiences with succession planning and leadership development.
From these discussions, we developed a three-part blog series to share the insights and recommendations gathered. Please read on for the second entry and scroll to the end of the article for a full list of our interview participants.
Other articles in the series:
The importance of the nonprofit board in succession planning cannot be overstated. Hiring the organizational leader, determining their salary, evaluating their work—these are all critical board responsibilities. It’s a matter of good governance for the board to consider the leader’s future and actively plan for the next step.
In our conversations, the board’s role came up again and again. Below, we share four ways the board should support succession planning efforts.
Creating an emergency succession plan.
What will you do if something catastrophic happens? Many of the leaders we spoke with referenced their emergency succession plans—a list of protocols and marching orders if the leader dies, is disabled, or leaves with no notice. Every nonprofit should have a written document that spells out what to do in the event of a tragedy or unexpected upheaval.
At Earthjustice, Board Treasurer Steve Daetz was responsible for creating an emergency succession plan. “We put in place a whole succession plan process, and I pulled together a checklist of issues to evaluate,” he explained.
“What are management’s signature authorities? If the President has the primary relationship with a donor, does anyone else have a relationship with them? Who would be the interim leaders? Who would perform the key functions of the President in their absence? Going through this process also set the stage for if and when a more planned transition was necessary.”
Former Executive Director Bob Bugert of Chelan-Douglas Land Trust spoke of its similarly rigorous plan in case of emergency, including fundamental information such as passwords and financial details required to keep the lights on and operations running.
[To get started on your own emergency succession plan, download this template from CompassPoint.]
Speaking openly with the current leader about their future plans.
Beyond planning for emergencies, the board also needs to understand the current CEO’s career plans, how they’re feeling about their position, and what’s next for them. Does the CEO intend to stay for the foreseeable future? Are they getting ready for retirement or eying a career change?
Receiving advanced notice about an executive transition allows the board to act strategically as it maps out next steps, rather than scrambling to fill the top position on short notice. Each year at Earthjustice, the Board Chair has a discussion with the President focused on succession.
The Board Chair asks the President a series of questions to understand internal management dynamics, potential emerging leaders, and the President’s own plans. In this way, someone else is privy to the President’s thoughts and the board can use this information to make decisions and prepare for the future.
Developing and retaining internal candidates for the top leadership position.
As at Earthjustice, open conversations between the CEO and the board can help identify emerging leaders within the organization. Board members aren’t always in a position to recognize these potential candidates, so they need to rely on the current leader to keep them in the loop.
Once identified, the board should give them regular guidance on their career trajectory, emphasizing areas to focus on and skills to build. Board Chair George Matelich of American Prairie Reserve discussed how APR strived to retain and work with current CEO Alison Fox, who joined the organization over a decade before assuming her current role:
“It is really rare to have the successor grow up inside the organization. We had to make it clear to Ali that she had the chance to do this. We didn’t just sit quietly and hope she wouldn’t leave. We told her that this could happen, and we worked with her at her reviews to help develop her. We were doing everything we could to hang on to our most viable candidate.”
Striving for unity around succession planning initiatives.
Through all our interviews, full board support of succession planning was a common theme. These boards understood that smooth leadership transitions ultimately affect the bottom line: mission advancement and donor and community confidence.
Boards should set high expectations for succession planning. While staff work to cultivate an organizational culture that champions leadership development, the board needs to prepare for the next leadership transition—whether the current CEO is new to the job or a 20-year veteran.
Thank you to the leaders who shared their succession planning experiences: