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succession planning

Kick Your Nonprofit Succession Plan to the Curb

There is a lot of talk about succession planning in the nonprofit sector, but for the most part, it’s approached in the wrong way. The problem with traditional succession planning is that nonprofits take a too narrow view of nonprofit leadership. It’s not enough to have a strong nonprofit executive director or CEO and to create a “succession plan” to guard against their eventual departure. Instead nonprofits need to develop a new approach to leadership that brings many people together to drive strategy.

In order to have truly sustainable and effective leadership a nonprofit must integrate four key elements into the leadership of their organization:

  • An Empowered Executive Director or CEO
  • Emboldened Staff (beyond the nonprofit leader)
  • Invested External Stakeholders (funders, regulators, policy makers, collaborators)
  • Elevated Board of Directors

These four groups should each have a role to play in any strategic decision the organization makes, like this:

If you develop an integrated leadership model like this, the organization is not overly-reliant on any single element to keep it going. So in the worst case scenario if your executive director leaves tomorrow the organization would be able to continue on until a new executive director replaced her. Similarly, an integrated leadership model like this guards against the debilitating challenges that founder’s syndrome, or the over-reliance on one leader, can pose for a nonprofit.

In order to determine whether your nonprofit has an integrated leadership model, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Does your staff feel comfortable speaking their mind at staff and board meetings?
  • If your executive director left tomorrow would your nonprofit survive?
  • Does your board get excited and engaged at most board meetings?
  • Do they have and express diverse viewpoints?
  • Do they drive the strategic direction of your organization?
  • Do you have a real strategic plan that drives the day-to-day work of the organization?
  • Do funders, board, stakeholders have relationships with staff members beyond just the executive director?

If you answered “No” to many of these questions, you may need to strengthen these four elements so that your nonprofit has a sustainable leadership model. How do you get there? You:

  • Create a groundbreaking board that focuses on strategy, not weeds, and structures itself for engagement.
  • Create and monitor a REAL strategic plan.
  • Evaluate the performance of the board and the Executive Director at least annually.
  • Conduct annual, anonymous 360 staff evaluations, where each staff member (including the ED) evaluates herself, any of her direct reports, and her supervisor.
  • Have staff contribute at board meetings and encourage their relationships with board and external stakeholders.
  • Make external stakeholders (funders, policy makers, influencers) a key part of your organization by including them in committees or meeting with them regularly to solicit thoughts and feedback.

The nonprofit organization of the 21st century must be led by a diverse and distributed army of people both inside and outside the organization. Relying on only one person to lead is setting the organization up for failure.

Photo Credit: stephclark


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