The S Word
Succession. In some nonprofits, this word causes anxiety, panic, fear and desperation.
If your organization struggles with succession, most likely the organization has other systemic challenges at hand.
This becomes the classic chicken and egg problem. You need a strong leader to tackle the organization’s problems. At the same time, the organization isn’t attractive to potential lay leaders because it is in trouble or at the very least is not healthy or robust. To compound the problem, the perception that you can’t get anyone to serve in a leadership role continually undermines the organization.
What is an organization to do?
Faced with this situation, many desperate organizations ask the current President to stay on for an additional period of time or term. This is a short-term fix and is advisable only if there is an ongoing project that will result in an ameliorated situation for the agency at the end of the term such as completion of strategic planning, change of professional leadership or strategic restructuring. In too many cases, organizations beg a checked-out President to hold over because of desperation. This is akin to treading water. It allows the organization to delay moving in a clear direction or with accelerated pace but that is exactly what is needed to make real progress.
In the alternative, boards and nominating committees should consider putting together a council of invested leaders, past presidents and/or long-term donors to act as a council of sages and to approach two people who have been involved with the organization (preferably but not necessarily current board members if allowed by the by-laws) to come in as co-Presidents. They would do so with the understanding that the council was there to support and back them. People are more likely to take on a challenging role if they can share the responsibilities and have the advice and counsel of a wise, experienced group on which to rely.
There is another possible solution if a restructuring involving merger or integration is contemplated. The two organizations interested in merging can create overlapping boards.
The goal for organizations is to continually be developing leaders and to have a solid succession plan in place. Should your organization be in this unfortunate situation of not having a viable succession plan, these are a couple of options to evaluate.