Most often people think succession plans are something corporations need to have, but nonprofits must also consider them. While the nonprofit sector employs approximately 61.2 million full and part-time employees in this country, it is an unfortunate reality that our industry has a somewhat high turnover rate. According to the 2010 Employment Trends Survey, a partnership between Nonprofit HR Solutions and the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research, on average, nonprofits have an industry turnover rate of 21%. And so we pose the question to nonprofit staff, what would happen if one of your executives resigned tomorrow? Who would assume those responsibilities, and where might your top challenges lie?
Over the past couple of years, our firm has made recommendations to clients to be prepared with a succession plan. We have advised this primarily for clients with executive level staff nearing retirement age. I recently attended a presentation on succession planning, or should I say passing the proverbial baton, at the VFRI (Virginia Fundraising Institute) Annual Conference. Alex Smith, Vice President of Development at Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, shared anecdotes from his own experience and offered sound advice on gracefully navigating this transition.
I wanted to touch on a few key areas Alex mentioned that resonated. First, there can be no hiccups. You must keep on fundraising. Gifts must be acknowledged in a timely manner and donors must feel confident that their chosen nonprofit is moving through the succession process seamlessly. Second, while the replacement person needs to be talented and meet all the qualifications of the position, he or she does not need to be their predecessor’s clone. Ensure that there is sufficient overlap time for your long-time staff person to train, guide, mentor, and introduce the new staff person. It is important to schedule time to meet with key donors and provide a proper introduction of the new leader. Lastly, be sensitive to the person leaving your organization and allow them to exit gracefully. They will know when it is time to let go and step to the side. That said, it is important to keep them engaged in a capacity in which they are comfortable.
And a final tip from the Curtis Group on succession: When you have your new executive in place, it provides a great cultivation opportunity for your nonprofit. What better excuse for a board member to pick up the phone and call a major donor to ask if you can visit with them and introduce the new leader at your nonprofit? It gives the executive a chance to share his or her vision for the organization and ask the donor for input and advice on what they would like to see at the nonprofit. Remember, your donors are your thought partners just as much as your financial supporters.