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Success at Succession Planning: Board Leadership

Think Tanks are worry-warting over the next wave of nonprofit executives to take CEO positions when the current crop of Baby Boomers all retire. Worrying over this is not time or energy well spent. Board search committees will not have to look very far to find competent, capable leaders in the X and Y Generations. They are right there in front of our eyes. They may think differently, they definitely are coming from different experience, but they are bright, insightful, full of beans and ready to go when given the chance. I see a number of these younger folks in my graduate level marketing and fundraising classes at Northeastern University in Boston. I read the tweets and blogs of the X-ers and Y’ers on the Internet.
Look out world, here they come.
I am more concerned with what I see on boards of directors of these same nonprofits, worrying over executive succession. They have a leadership vacuum right on the board. They keep asking the same volunteer to serve “just one more year” (how much is too much?). There are things that can be done to remedy this situation. It takes some work. So lets look at some steps nonprofit boards can take to get folks moving up the leadership track to chair or preside over the board of directors.
  • Term limits. I recommend two or three three-year terms of service on a board. This creates a continuous rotation (with a set number of members rotating off each year) of members leaving, new members arriving. If the same group of guys (some boards still have some work to do on gender and race diversity) are sitting on the board for ten, twenty years, the nonprofit runs out of capable leaders prepared to take charge.
  • Leader orientation. The nonprofit CEO works with current board leadership to design an orientation for newly elected leaders, so they get the lay of the land. So they understand the parameters of leadership. So they are clear on the CEO role and how that is different fom the board chair role.
  • Active working committees. The finance, progam, development, marketing & communication committees (perhaps one or two more) have real work assignments from the board, meet regularly (but not too often), and stay in touch so agreed-to work gets done. The committees are great proving ground for up-and-comers. And they consist of some community members who are not on the board, grooming for membership down the road.

Staff and volunteer leaders can see leadership potential in new board members within the first six months, or year at most. These are people eager to take an assignment…well, willing if not really eager. They get their work done on time, they have thougtful comments at meetings, they don’t try to take the nonprofit down a road it’s not ready or capable to travel.

So. If you’re finding yourself in a maze, wondering “where oh where will the next board chair be?” it’s time to put some practices in place that’ll get a smooth flow of energy moving through your organization.

In my experience as a nonprofit executive with the American Lung Association, and in my consulting work currently, I see clearly how these steps work advantageously. For more detailed references, some tools to help, feel free to contact me at

Attending to succession planning for the nonprofit board of directors is time and energy well spent.

Steve Smith is Principal of It’s The Results, LLC. This practice focuses on board development, strategic planning, and fundraising.

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