Doing Better at Doing Good

Many NC nonprofits pay too little attention to succession planning

August 31, 2013 

At 66 years old, Fred Haggard plans to spend about three more years as executive director of Food Runners Collaborative, a Raleigh nonprofit that supplies food to the elderly, homeless and disadvantaged in the Triangle.

When he departs, he wants to ensure a smooth transition at the organization he has led since 2008. So he made time last year to attend a seminar on succession planning offered by the N.C. Center for Nonprofits. Since then, he’s worked with his board and team on building a plan that ensures candidates for senior roles at the nonprofit are identified, trained and ready to step up if needed.

“I was in the U.S. Air Force for 25 years, and there I learned vividly that succession happens all the time,” Haggard says. “Every three years or so, you were moving on. You need to be ready.”

Many nonprofits here and throughout the United States, however, are not.

A report by the Bridgespan Group in 2009 predicted that several hundred thousand nonprofit leadership jobs would need to be filled nationally between then and 2016 as Baby Boomers retired from those roles. And the impact is being felt right now in North Carolina.

The Charlotte Observer reported last month that the top executives of at least 35 of the city’s nonprofits have stepped down over the past year, and numerous fund-raising roles are also open. The reasons for the departures range from retirement to better jobs elsewhere.

In these situations and also those where executives leave because of health problems or other emergencies, nonprofits that have not planned properly risk seriously disrupting day-to-day operations, alarming donors and overburdening remaining staff. And yet many organizations, chronically short-staffed, under-funded and pressed for time, have not made succession planning a priority.

“It’s a very big issue and one that the center sees as critical for the health of our sector,” said Trisha Lester, vice president of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits. With a challenge grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Center will do a statewide survey to gauge the full extent to which nonprofits need assistance with executive transitions and talent pipeline development.

Get started early

In the meantime, succession planning will be a central focus of the center’s annual statewide conference, scheduled for Sept. 19-20 in Concord. Consultants Tom Adams and Jeanie Duncan will lead a full-day workshop for nonprofit chief executives, board members and key staff.

“There’s one thing that’s inevitable, and that’s a leadership transition,” Duncan says. “Sooner or later, it’s going to happen.”

Before it does, say Duncan and other experts, there are several important steps that nonprofits should take right away.

The first of these: simply get started on a succession plan.

Nonprofit leaders are often intimidated by the work involved in creating it. But tools and templates exist that make it possible to develop a well-conceived plan in a relatively short amount of time – and will be highlighted at next month’s succession workshop

Communication, transparency key

A good plan identifies key positions in the organization and the current employees who are capable of being promoted into them. It ensures those individuals will receive training that prepares them to take on those duties if necessary. As plans are developed, effective communication and transparency among the board, executives and staff is crucial. And when a leadership transition does occur, the work still isn’t done. Board members should stay closely connected with newly installed executives to ensure they are getting the support they need early in their tenures.

Floyd Davis, president and CEO of Community Link, a Charlotte nonprofit focused on affordable housing, got serious about succession planning two years ago.

“I’ve observed what has happened to nonprofits after their executive director or president or CEO leaves,” Davis says. “Many of them really flounder for a while and some actually end up going out of business. I don’t want that to happen.”

So Davis and his board have developed an emergency transition plan. They also created a routine plan that names Davis’ eventual successor and also targets other staff for development and promotions. Davis has led Community Link for 12 years and hasn’t set a departure date yet. But when that day comes, he says, “it won’t be a surprise to the organization” – or for the thousands of state residents who count on its services.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University and author of "Life Entrepreneurs." Stephen Martin, a director at the Center for Creative Leadership, is author of "The Messy Quest for Meaning" and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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