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Succession Planning For Nonprofit Boards and Leadership

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Christopher Kelly

Board composition is a crucial component of a successful nonprofit organization. The individuals who serve can enhance the charitable mission through their own efforts and contributions or severely deter progress, even diminish the reputation of the organization. This Governing Board is legally accountable for the actions of the nonprofit organization so individuals who serve must be aware and willing to shoulder the responsibility. Their focus is to oversee compliance with public support regulations [the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status], maintaining/refining policies and procedures, as well as ensuring the plans and programs of the charitable mission are implemented and enhanced; while conducting the three legal duties: duty of care, duty of loyalty and duty of obedience. Great care is taken in selecting the inaugural members of the Board and this same level of due diligence must be applied to subsequent generations of the Board; mainly because there could be numerous volunteers who, for whatever reason, desire a place at the Board Table and may not be ready or qualified to serve.

Qualifications would seem to be easy to determine, but are they?

Qualified Board or Committee Members, or realistically, anyone in a leadership capacity should exhibit a methodical understanding of the charitable mission along with the dedication to uphold and enhance that purpose. Profiling and due diligence procedures are necessary to filter the qualified from those whose goals may not be as altruistic as one would expect. The most effective Boards are comprised of individuals who exhibit:

  • A strong enthusiasm for the organization and its mission. Not just the textbook rendering of the charitable mission, but a true understanding and empathy for the objectives. The true board member has or gains a strong comprehension of the infrastructure and the organizational chart, as it is impossible to be an effective advocate without a thorough understanding of the entire organization! Extensive knowledge of the internal and external workings makes for impactful leadership and turns a board member into an effective Ambassador.
  • The ability to interact productively with others on the Board, Committees and Staff.  Enthusiasm to carry out long term goals, governance and advocacy should prevail but never obstruct others. The goal in any organization is to combine talents, expertise and dedication for the common good. The most productive Boards are populated with those who still remember and apply “Sandbox Etiquette”.
  • No reservations in lending a hand with the more mundane chores. Assistance from the Board is greatly appreciated when it is solicited and willingly provided.  Working within on specific projects can actually provide greater insight into the organization and can enhance the board experience.
  • A willingness to support and/or assist in fund raising efforts. This is a quality that seems difficult to find in a prospective Board or Committee member. Many are willing to make a financial commitment to comply with a Board Policy, but consider their duty completed. The consistent comment is that the Board Member is not comfortable asking for money. No organization expects a Board Member to become a Major Gift Officer, however there are situations where including a Board Member in a donor conversation can be a powerful influence.
  • The insight to know when their work has been accomplished. Board service can be fulfilling and many who offer their time and talents often report that their sense of satisfaction exceed their commitment. It is important to consider that burnout will diminish effective impact. Dynamic board policies incorporate term limits, to combat burnout or provide a practical exit for the individual who less than productive. Time off can provides the objectivity to determine if the desire to serve remains strong and if so, enable that Board Member to return with a fresh perspective. 

How to determine if a prospective candidate has the qualifications: Establishing if prospective successors possess the requisite criteria and motivation is not simply difficult, it is daunting. One way to begin the vetting process would be to generate (and keep current) a brief overview of the expectations of a board member. Providing the time commitment, required duties of board service, along with conflict of interest policies will clearly define prerequisites. Obviously any raised objections would eliminate candidates without true commitment.  

In addition, some ways that organizations have implemented effective succession planning have been:

  1. Recommendations from current or retiring Board Members, or Committee members can identify qualified, dedicated individuals for consideration; potentially easing the search for the most qualified candidates.
  2. Consider those who have served as Volunteers, on Committees or Projects, as current service can demonstrate strength of commitment and potential leadership skills. 
  3. Consider a Profiling Questionnaire. A Board Application or Questionnaire can profile for goals and expectations. Candidates who pass this phase can be interviewed by a selection committee to determine if the personality and motivation of the candidate will assimilate in the existing board. This information can help select the right mentor, if the organization employs this concept to promote the transition to functioning board member.
  4. Consider diversity in the dynamics. Succession Planning can engage new influences and ideas potentially promoting the mission. In profiling potential candidates, consideration of experience and personality, in addition to gender, age, culture and to the extent that it is relevant geographic location can broaden the collective attitude of the board and interpretations of leadership. In an era where relevancy is a concern for most organizations broadening dynamic can establish the bridge to all generations.

Succession planning is crucial at all levels of the nonprofit organization. It is the only means of protecting the charitable mission and the reputation of the organizations. Board Service is rewarding but also challenging in many respects. To that end it should not be offered without reservation or accepted without complete commitment.


Christopher Kelly is the Planned Giving Product Specialist with PNC Institutional Asset Management where he works with nonprofit organizations to enhance the instruments of their planned giving infrastructure for maximum effectiveness while offering assistance with education and training on the benefits of gift planning and blended gift strategies. 

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