Nonprofit Succession Planning: Developing Leaders

Nonprofit Succession Planning: Developing Leaders


Recently the Stanford Social Innovation Review produced an article about the Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit, and how succession planning is the No. 1 organizational concern of US nonprofits, but they are failing to develop their most promising pool of talent: homegrown leaders.

We wanted to find the antithesis of this SSIR article and hear from nonprofits who were succeeding in developing homegrown leaders at their organization. How are they addressing succession planning, and how are they measuring the results?

Perhaps one of the more interesting takes on succession planning that we received came from Mike Williams, who runs one of the longest running Boy Scout Troops (approaching 70 years):

Each annual task of the organization is defined and split off to the responsibility of a different leader, often a pair of leaders. For example, we do an annual fundraiser (Christmas Wreath Sales) Sales/distribution of the wreaths is done by one pair of leaders. The awards for sellers are handled by a different pair. The high adventure trip that the fundraiser pays for is yet another pair. Pairs are used for continuity – succession of the pair usually happens in stagger; the more experienced one leaves and a new member takes his spot, leaving one experienced leader in the same role for the next year. Of course this isn’t always possible but works well as a guideline.

No one gets burnt out; no one has an insurmountable task, and in most cases a new volunteer works with another experienced one who shares the task’s load.

And it makes recruiting someone to take the big jobs – Scoutmaster, Troop Committee Chairman, much easier. They don’t have to shoulder the entire load.

The other informal rule is: You have to find your own replacement. If you want to stay in a role of course that’s welcome, but if you want to move on, find your replacement and convince him to take your spot. Again this would be very challenging if these weren’t such bite-sized tasks, or if the new recruit felt he had to go-it-alone.

There’s some good stuff there about succession planning.

  • Use pairs for continuity and to stagger succession
  • Share the burden of the task to avoid burnout
  • Find your own replacement

But how do you measure the effectiveness of succession planning? For the answer to this question we turned to Ben Williams, who advises nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and multi-sector collaboratives on strategy development and governance.

Ben says that succession planning has been a high priority in almost all the organizations he advises. As you can see in the article by SSIR, the demographics of leaders in the social sector are top heavy, and the implications are now starting to be seen.

Here’s what Ben had to add about nonprofit succession planning:

High performing organizations develop succession plans as part of a larger leader development strategy. It begins by setting standards for job responsibilities and development plans for all positions to grow into greater responsibility. With a pathway for advancement in place, the organization can assess and prioritize its pipeline based on current staff for future roles. A succession plan without a larger leadership development effort will find that it has many gaps (if not at the highest executive level, at the middle manager level).

Results can be measured through evaluation of staff capacity: engagement (greater engagement = likelihood to advance), goal achievement (# or % of goal achievement), and hiring ratios (% internal vs. external = higher % internal hires indicates stronger pipeline).

Bottom line is that nonprofit succession planning is difficult, but not impossible. Looking to get started? We’d highly recommend that you read the piece by SSIR.

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