The National Council of Nonprofits states that “nonprofits that are serious about their own sustainability will also be serious about planning for smooth and thoughtful transitions of leadership.” Planning for leadership transitions is certainly critical to long-term organizational success, but it sounds like a “nice-to-do” activity instead of a necessity when leadership is doing well and has no overt plans to leave.
Contingency planning, or bench building, on the other hand is an effort that nonprofits should undertake regardless of the state of their leadership tenure. It can be viewed as a precursor to succession planning. It can also be conducted as a smart capacity building strategy. A large human-services nonprofit in Metro Detroit found themselves inadequately prepared when a senior staffer left the agency for another job. They committed to a thorough bench-building effort which involved a review of many key positions in the organization – job tasks as formally documented and face-to-face interviews revealing job coverage across departments and across the organization.
1. Consider the Big Picture
Contingency planning is often a more feasible option for busy nonprofit professionals. First, begin the planning process by posing the hypothetical question “what would we do if our leader(s) won the lottery (and subsequently left our organization)?” This type of planning can be done informally and without the disruptions that suggesting the possibility of imminent organizational change (to staff or to donors) can foster.
2. Ask the Right Questions
Second, in order to formulate a cohesive response to the won-the-lottery scenario, you should ask a series of questions that are based on a “big picture” perspective of the organization. These questions commonly fall into the following categories:
- Relationships: What are the most important relationships inside and outside of the organization? Are any of these relationships held by only one person? Are board members aware of these key relationships?
- Job Tasks: Who else in the organization knows what the leader knows? Who else can do the common tasks that the leader does? Are there tasks that only the leader is capable of completing?
As you answer these questions, a picture will begin to emerge regarding your preparedness for a transition in leadership. You are likely to find that there are some areas where duties and responsibilities overlap, and other areas where there are gaps in coverage. Use this information to plan for changes that will eliminate overlap and cover the gaps.
3. Dig Deep into Your Organization
Finally, use the answers to these questions as a starting point to dig deeper into the organization. You are likely to find that when you analyze the relationships and job tasks for your leadership and management staff, you will get a clearer picture of the strengths and weaknesses at every level within the organization.
The non-profit Business Consultants for Non-Profits assisted the aforementioned nonprofit with their bench building efforts – from design of protocol through implementation and recommendations for change. Now go buy that lottery ticket!