Leadership transition like any other transition is inevitable. This is particularly true as baby boomers leave leadership positions and enter their next life stage. Nonprofit organizations are not immune to this phenomena. Since 1999 three separate studies by diverse well known institutions, including CompassPoint and the Anne E. Casey Foundation, reported that 50-85% of non profit leaders plan to leave their position in the next five to seven years.
Yet, succession planning is rarely talked about. CEO’s hesitate to bring up the topic. Some don’t want to signal to their board that they may be leaving, when they have no plans. Others appreciate the job security. And more don’t want to start a discussion that they don’t know where it will lead. Not to mention, leading a nonprofit organization is difficult in this age of government sequestration, budget deficits, etc. Leaders feel they can’t afford to lose focus on the here and now.
For founding staff leadership in particular, the discussion is even harder to begin. Many see their leadership as essential; after all this is their baby and their single focus. Board members feel that bringing up the topic is disrespectful to the founder and all of their work. Many founders also don’t have the means to retire because creating a new organization means all resources were focused toward keeping the organization afloat rather than leadership retirement. Setting aside funds for retirement was always next year’s goal.
Board members are also silent on their own transition. Many non profit boards have terms and term limits in name only. CEO’s and Board Chair’s don’t have regular check-ins with their fellow board members. Without this dialogue, board members feel trapped. If they start the dialogue they feel they are short changing the mission and the organization yet for whatever reason they are ready for a new challenge.
What happens when leaders don’t talk about transition and succession isn’t planned for? How did succession become the white elephant in the room? How can nonprofits prepare for this transition creating a stronger organization and more effective services for those in need?