Facing the Future of Non-Profit Leadership

By: Ira Weissman • Idea Innovations

Non-Profits are now being forced to face an issue which they have been avoiding for years.  The issue being the boomers who were either the founders or leaders of non-profits are getting ready to retire or due to other circumstances are leaving the agencies they either founded or headed. In the past year we have seen the retirement of the heads of 3 different major agencies in South Jersey.

Why have non-profits avoided this issue? There are a multitude of reasons from being afraid of appearing to be disloyal to the current leader, possibility of scaring away donors, causing the departure of other leadership in the non-profit if they should not get the position, etc. These are all in addition to the concern of carrying another person on the non-profit’s payroll and thus increasing the non-profit’s overhead.

Instead of avoiding the issue, non-profits should have been doing succession planning for their leadership and other key individuals within their organizations. Succession planning is a process by which an organization prepares for the departure planned or unplanned of key members of the organization and the transition of their responsibilities to another individual or individuals. Beyond a non-profit’s leadership, a non-profit should consider doing succession planning for those workers\people who are critical to the non-profit’s operations whose departure would severely impact on the non-profit’s ability to carry on its day to day operations (i.e., the person who is responsible for the non-profit’s website and technology).

The first step in doing succession planning is to do an assessment to determine where the non-profit is most at risk if an individual should leave. The assessment should extend to all the employees of the non-profit’s employees and volunteers.  The need to include volunteers in the assessment is that in many organizations, volunteers fill roles that a non-profit’s employee would have to do if a volunteer was not already doing the work. Questions that should be asked as part of the assessment would include:

  • What are the critical functions\activities in the organization?
  • Who (staff\volunteer) performs those critical functions\activities?
  • What key knowledge\skills\training does that individual (staff\volunteer) have?
  • What would happen if that individual should leave suddenly (illness\quit\retire)?
  • How would the organization recover if that individual should leave?

Once the assessment is complete, the non-profit should look at those individuals and activities that pose the greatest risk to the organization if the person should leave.

In our next blog post, we will discuss the steps needed to put a succession plan in place.

Despite non-profits’ discomfort with doing succession planning, succession planning helps to avoid crisis’s; assures smooth transition of work, responsibilities and authority; develops bench strength; allows the board to ensure that the strategic vision of the non-profit will be implemented irrespective of the leader; and creates a feeling of comfort with funders and stakeholders that the organization will continue. In summary, succession planning increases an organization’s service capacity, program effectiveness, and long-term stability and sustainability.



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