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Council Post: 12 Important Steps When Hiring The Right Nonprofit Successor

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Council Post: 12 Important Steps When Hiring The Right Nonprofit Successor

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The loss of a leader can be devastating for a business, regardless of industry. For nonprofits, the search and transition to a new leader may present challenges that impact the progress being made on social initiatives.

However, a departure isn’t always a bad thing. Be it anticipated or unanticipated, the process of finding a successor is also a great opportunity to conduct a deep assessment of the organization’s needs and goals and make positive changes for the future.

Below, 12 Forbes Nonprofit Council members each share one step nonprofit leadership can take to ensure the right successor is chosen when a longtime leader departs.

1. Plan Ahead

It is always a stressful and challenging time when a leader leaves. You’ll be set up for a lot more success if you know ahead of time what will be needed in the transition. Make sure a longtime leader is updating their job description every two years. Do an annual evaluation to know what is and is not working. The more you know ahead of time, the better your hiring process will be. – Matthew Gayer, Catalogue for Philanthropy

2. Make Succession Planning An Ongoing Process

No organization should wait for a leader to depart before thinking about this. Good succession planning is an ongoing process. We must have leadership profiles, key competencies and skills needed, an evaluation of internal candidates against those skills, professional development plans that help build the bench and an eye towards the external market through networking to keep options open. – Scott Dolan, Excelsior College


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3. Determine What Direction The Organization Should Move In

Leaders drive the organization’s culture. A new leader provides a new culture and an opportunity to deepen the impact. Exceptional nonprofits leaders are few and far between. When a longtime leader departs, it’s a chance to reinvent your organization by assessing with your board what they did well, critical areas of growth, the organization’s new agenda and the new leader’s goals and objectives. – Dr. Lilian Ajayi-Ore, Global Connections for Women Foundation

4. Aim To Fill Deficits

Nonprofits need to assess strengths and deficits in the way their organization conducts business. If you are very mission driven but don’t think about the financial impact or sustainability, you may want to select a professional with a financial background. If you have defaulted to conducting business only based on finances, look for someone who uses creativity to extend reach and impact. – Christina Potts, LISTEN

5. Ensure Cultural And Vision Alignment

Make sure there are ample opportunities to expose candidates to the culture of the organization. Also, allow representatives from the nonprofit to test the “fit” of a potential successor. Leaders need to represent the organization and, with that, the culture of the community they represent. Effective leadership must be aligned with the culture and vision for the nonprofit. – Victoria Burkhart, The More Than Giving Company

6. Allow Staff And Community Stakeholders To Provide Input

The board should first develop and approve a succession plan with a focus on seeking input from staff and community stakeholders to add to their own thinking about the skills, abilities and attributes they seek for their next leader. Ideally this work starts before a leader departs so that the board can take the time needed for a robust and thoughtful process. – Nicole Suydam, Goodwill of Orange County

7. Get An Independent Assessment Of The Organization

Start by having an independent assessment of your organization and its current needs. Then compare it to your strategic plan. After establishing a baseline for your needs, then recruit someone who matches your future and not your present. Plan for the day but prepare for tomorrow. – Jamee Rodgers, Urban Neighborhood Initiative

8. Look To Organizational Needs And Candidate Skill Sets

The board would do well to first assess the current needs of the organization. Then the best person whose skill set matches those needs should be hired as opposed to someone who seems to be a carbon copy of the long-time leader. – Kimberly Lewis, Goodwill Industries of East Texas, Inc.

9. Consider A Transitional Leader

Often, the person who succeeds a longtime leader will have a brief tenure, according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This sort of “unintentional interim” can be disruptive, so consider a purposeful interim leader who can facilitate important transition work while the board envisions their desired future and identifies a leader who can help the organization achieve it. – Laura MacDonald, Benefactor Group

10. Keep An Eye Toward The Future

The most important factor is what one’s vision for the future is. A time of transition is a time to adapt, grow and evolve. One needs to understand the organization’s past and present as well as bring a clear sense of what is possible in the future. If all one is looking for in a successor is maintaining the status quo, the organization needs to take a deep look into its expectations. – Patrick Riccards, Driving Force Institute

11. Take Your Time

Don’t rush the decision to backfill legacy leaders. Engagement of staff, the board and external partners can ensure alignment of culture and needs of the organization are identified. Go deep in the search for assessment of what the organization needs at that point in time. – Jono Anzalone, The Climate Initiative

12. Leverage Storytelling To Set Them Up For Success

Have a good story behind who is finally chosen as the successor. Explain and set them up for success by highlighting their unique talents. Setting the stage for them is crucial for their success, which then leads to the continuous success of the organization—and it’s the job of leadership to secure that. – Magdalena Nowicka Mook, ICF (International Coaching Federation)

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