Thursday February 2nd 2012

Why All the Fuss Over Succession Planning?


And why now?

The cynic in me says that the “crisis” was created by consultants to ensure full employment. But in my kinder moments, I recognize that the concern stems from the predicted mass departure of long-tenured nonprofit CEOs. Fair enough.

But why stop there? Succession planning is only one aspect of a comprehensive effort to ensure the sustainability of a nonprofit organization. Viewed in this way, it begs the question of what else nonprofits need to do to ensure sustainability. In other words, if we should be concerned about the entire forest, what other trees need to be tended to?

In my opinion, sustainability is a function of four major considerations: a) the ability to produce program impact; b) the adaptability of the board and staff in responding to changing circumstances; c) the forging of a defined position in the market, and; d) the willingness of the community to invest in the organization.

Obviously, each of these considerations encompasses a range of other issues. For example, program impact depends on a) a logical program model, and b) full implementation of the model. Similarly, before an organization reaches the point of adaptability, it must first ensure that a) its internal resources allocated and aligned properly, and b) the organization adopts a strategic orientation towards its deliberations about programs and finances.

Markets are often a more difficult concept for nonprofits to master. In my work, I have used the term “domain” instead of market. A domain can be defined by geography (“we serve families in the surrounding neighborhoods); by demographics (“we serve low-income families”); by special interests (“we work on behalf of people who want to preserve wetlands”); or by industry (“we serve children referred by the child welfare system”). Regardless of how the domain is defined, a nonprofit must identify — and market — its advantages and points of differentiation.

Community investment means just what it says. In order to be sustainable, a nonprofit must ensure that the right people know the right things about them so that key resources (including funding, volunteers, and board members) can be secured.

Back to my initial point, I understand why succession planning has become urgent for nonprofits. But to focus on the development of a comprehensive succession plan without examining the other factors that support sustainability is to be seduced by the myth of the super-CEO who can make everything right. Unfortunately, this belief may result in the identification of the right captain who must then figure out how to salvage a sinking ship.