July 31, 2014


Is your nonprofit’s board prepared for transition?

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Terrie Temkin

Terrie Temkin

Everyone is talking about succession planning today.

Much of the conversation is motivated by the large numbers of baby boomer executives expected to retire in the next few years.

While this is a real concern deserving of our strategic attention, I have to wonder why so little attention is paid to succession on our boards of directors.

After all, turnover is virtually an everyday occurrence on boards. Term limits and life's challenges move people out of office or off the board altogether on a regular basis; and fewer and fewer individuals are stepping up and into the vacated leadership positions.

The result is that boards often are forced to choose creative approaches to filling the empty chairs, such as allowing people to share leadership responsibilities or conferring key positions on inexperienced talent.

Unfortunately, experience tells us that such solutions typically result in a loss of organizational momentum or effectiveness.

But this needn't be the case if we will commit to adequately preparing our boards for transition.

I doubt there is anything we can do to bring back the days where people will spend a decade or more working their way up to a coveted leadership position. But a strong succession plan is within reach of every organization.

To see how, we must first consider what a succession plan really is, and what it isn't.

It isn't about knowing who the next three board chairs will be. It is ensuring that you have a strong board with clear procedures in place, where everyone understands the big picture, is engaged and knows his or her role.

In other words, the best succession plan is having a board that regularly operates under proven practices, because a board like that will be able to continue to perform effectively regardless of what position may turn up empty tomorrow or the next day.

To determine if your board is prepared for the inevitable expected transition - to say nothing of the sudden one - answer these questions:

  • Does your board have criteria for membership?
  • Does your board maintain a current pool of good prospects for board membership by continuously identifying and cultivating potential members?
  • Does your board "test out" potential board members by encouraging committee or other participation first?
  • Does each individual on your board have a job description?
  • Does your board chair have a job description?
  • Has each individual on your board gone through an orientation?
  • Does your board share a collective vision for the community?
  • Does your board share a passion for the mission of the organization?
  • Does each individual on your board have ready access to a copy of the bylaws?
  • Do the bylaws indicate how the transfer of power will operate under both normal and extenuating circumstances?
  • Does your organization operate according to its bylaws?
  • Are the expectations of your board members clear?
  • Are board members that fail to live up to their expectations asked off the board? (Is this a given, regardless of the person's affluence or influence?)
  • Are your board members provided board education at every meeting?
  • Does each individual on your board understand the issues critical to the organization's mission?
  • Do your board agendas encourage participation around substantive issues?
  • Are decisions consistently made on the basis of your organization's mission, vision and guiding principles, as well as defined criteria for success?
  • Is every individual on your board offered opportunities for leadership?
  • Do your board members know each other well enough to look forward to working with one another?
  • Does your board take time at most meetings to evaluate what it is doing well and what it could do better?
  • Does your board do an annual self-evaluation?
  • Does your board make changes in its behavior on the basis of its evaluations?
  • Does each committee have a purpose?
  • Does each committee have goals?
  • Are your committees held accountable for achieving their goals?
  • Does your board have a crisis-management plan in place?

If you answered "no"  or "only sometimes" to most of these questions, you may be left wondering if there is a future for your organization when one or more of your key leaders leave.

Don't let that happen.

Make a commitment today to begin working on those conditions to which you were not able to answer a resounding "yes," and soon you'll realize that succession is no longer an issue because your board is functioning efficiently and effectively no matter who is in the driver's seat.

Terrie Temkin is founding partner at the Miami, Fla.-based management consulting group CoreStrategies for Nonprofits Inc. For five years, her "On Nonprofits" column appeared biweekly in The Miami Herald.

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