This spring I launched a wildly popular blog series about strategic planning, which has been among our most read blog posts. Reader feedback was clear: provide useful information in bite-sized chunks that will help us understand and begin important projects. For this reason, I’m offering a second blog series to help your organization begin transition planning.
I recently ran into a board member of a prominent local housing nonprofit whose executive director had resigned after just a couple years in the position. The board member shared that, “Our board was caught completely off guard because we didn’t know she had planned to move to another state.”
Far too many organizations don’t start to plan for leadership succession until their executive director gives notice. In fact, nearly all nonprofit literature and research indicates that the vast majority organizations are unprepared for an executive transition. Boardable’s recent research outlined in The Wakeup Call, for example, indicates that over 77% of organizations lack a transition plan.
With the length of executive tenure declining, the coming wave of retiring executives, and the burn-out rate for first time executive directors, failure to have a transition plan in place is a risky and dangerous.
As the first post in this blog series, we are starting with the basics by defining a transition plan and explaining why they are important.
What is a transition plan?
A transition plan, sometimes called a succession plan, is a written document the board develops and uses to ensure continued operations and a smooth transition in the event of a planned or unplanned extended absence or departure of the executive director. Good plans are well documented so that interim leadership or new permanent executive could pick up the plan and have a clear sense of how to manage the organization or department.Transition planning is essentially risk management and contingency planning rolled into one. Planning requires that the organization identify the various types of vacancies or departures and create sub-plans around them. It also requires that the daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual tasks of the executive are fully documented. This will enable the organization to ensure all essential tasks occur in the event of a short term or long term absence.
Why should my organization have a plan?
Transition plans are important regardless of an organization’s staff size or total revenue, but succession planning is especially important in small and medium-size organizations, where the executive director wears multiple hats. A director running an organization with a staff of four, for example, may need to process payroll, submit a grant proposal, attend a coalition meeting, and make a key decision about employee benefits all on the same day or week.
If this fictional executive director were to enter the witness protection program and disappear without a trace, the organization would likely scramble to process payroll (I can hear the treasurer asking – What payroll service do we use? How do I convince them I represent the organization?); miss the grant proposal deadline; fail to attend the coalition meeting; and stick their employees with the same crappy health insurance next year.
While larger organizations may have more executives with institutional memory, they need to create transition plans for their executive director and each member of the management team. Because “larger” means more complex, the directors of finance, programs, and development all possess information that must be transferred to their successors.
Next Post in the Series
Next week’s blog post will identify and define the four types of transitions your succession plan should include.