Succession planning for volunteer boards

Planning for the future

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 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 about how to build succession planning into the board culture.

If you’ve ever served on the board of directors of a social impact organization, you’ve probably realized that, on 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 your board understands that succession planning is not just about finding replacements for current board members, but also about building a pipeline of future leaders, who can bring in those new ideas and skills to the organization. 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 it will take that year to identify and develop potential new board members. That may include reviewing board member job descriptions, updating any skill gaps, identifying a target number of new members, developing a mentorship program for new board members, and creating opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge.

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, but the process can also include an orientation session and role specific (ie: treasurer) training.

It’s also important to get the new member involved on 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, including 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, the more likely it is that you’ve seen someone made board chair or president after having only been on the board a month or two. I suggest that role only go to someone who has had a minimum of a year on the board, and preferably who has 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, reviewing the recruitment and retention rates, examining the board’s diversity levels, and evaluating 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.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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