Succession Planning for Volunteer Boards

succession planning

Does your board have a succession plan in place?

I had the pleasure of running a workshop this past weekend for the not-for-profit organizations in the Regional District of Nanaimo, on BC’s Vancouver Island. The first half of the day was focused on building volunteer teams and the second half was on successful board engagement. Let’s face it, most board members are volunteers, too!

The participants were engaged and asked a lot of questions, some of which really got me thinking. In particular, I was asked for specifics in how to build succession planning into the board culture.

If you’ve ever served on the board of directors for a social impact organization, you’ve probably realized that, in many of them, the same members fill the same positions for years at a time. I know of an organization where one person was President for close to 20 years. Great for continuity; not so great for innovation!

Succession planning is an essential element of any organization’s long-term sustainability. Social impact organizations, though, face unique challenges in building a culture of succession planning into their boards. Board members often have limited availability for taking on some of the bigger roles, so those who do have the time often get stuck serving in those roles for longer than they might like. Others enjoy being in power and are reluctant to step down, and may look for reasons why it makes sense for them to stay.

For an organization to stay relevant, though, a steady influx of new ideas is essential. Which means that there needs to be a regular turnover of leadership. But how do you build that into your board culture?

Step one is recognizing it’s importance.

Ensure that your board understands that succession planning is not just about finding replacements for current board members. It’s also about building a pipeline of future leaders who can bring in new ideas. Boards should also recognize that the process is a shared responsibility, not just the job of the board Chair or President. Everyone should be involved in the process, and there should be a clear plan for how they will identify, develop and support their future leaders.

Next, build it into the board’s strategy plan and the plan’s annual review.

Ensure that board (and senior staff!) succession is included in the organization’s strategic plan and create formal processes for them. These can include setting term limits on roles, identifying gaps in experience and/or diversity, and strategies for onboarding and training new members.

Then, at least once a year, the board should outline the specific steps they will take that year to identify and develop potential new board members. This may include reviewing board member job descriptions and updating any skill gaps. You can also identify a target number of new members and develop a mentorship program for new board members. The process should include a clear timeline for recruitment. It should also involve input from all current board members and senior staff.

Provide support and training.

Once new board members are recruited, it is important to provide them with the support and training they need to be effective leaders. I am a huge believer in mentoring and role shadowing. The process can also include an orientation session and role specific (ie: Treasurer) training.

It’s also important to get the new member involved in committees or special projects which can help them build relationships with other members and develop a deeper understanding of the organization’s operations and goals.

Have systems in place for leadership transitions.

It’s not enough to just say “So-and-so is now the board Chair.” The succession plan should include an outline of how leadership transitions will be managed. Include the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, the timeline for transition, and the criteria for selecting a new leader. The longer you’ve been in the sector, it is likely you’ve seen someone made board President after having just joined the board! Really, that role should only go to someone who has had a minimum of a year on the board. Preferably to someone who has also filled another role, such as Secretary. Your plan should also include contingency actions in case of any disruptions or conflicts that may arise.

Lastly, review the plan regularly to ensure it’s up-to-date and still effective.

This might include conducting a survey of board members to assess how they feel things are going. You can review the recruitment and retention rates, or examine the board’s diversity levels. It’s also helpful to evaluate new board members to assess the effectiveness of the training and mentoring programs.

Building a culture of succession planning is essential to keep organizations strong and relevant into the future.

It isn’t always easy, and you may get push-back from long-term members. But if you  work at it step by step, you can weave succession planning into your culture. And believe me, it’s worth it!

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