I have never seen nonprofit executives and board members react with such discomfort as when someone mentions “succession.” There are usually awkward half-laughs, glances around the room to see how others are reacting, and then, a sense of liberation – finally, someone has mentioned the dreaded topic. The chief executive is concerned that mentioning succession will make the board think she/he is thinking about leaving. The board is concerned that it will send an unintended message to the chief executive that she/he should be thinking about moving on. If a founder is involved, let’s face it, the level of uneasiness skyrockets.

Happily, there is a way to change this. Thanks to my forward-thinking client, Dory Rand, the President of Woodstock Institute (www.woodstockinst.org), we were able to talk about succession from the perspective of organizational sustainability. Whew! What a relief!

Let’s Talk about Organizational Sustainability: Transfer of Leadership AND Knowledge (at all levels)

Succession planning often focuses on identifying a plan for seamless continuity for when the executive director/CEO leaves. This may include developing talent within the organization to assume higher levels of responsibility. A sometimes overlooked aspect of succession planning is knowledge transfer: increasing internal organizational capacity related to making essential information easily accessible, and filling documentation gaps that support internal processes and staffing transitions. When this occurs, everyone – anyone – in an organization can rise to the occasion in unexpected circumstances.

While succession planning is often accompanied by the “what if someone is hit by a bus” conversation, real life is compelling enough. Staff go on maternity/paternity leave, have family emergencies, and face other life events that take them away from work. Staff also move on and new colleagues take their places. With this comes the need to acclimate and onboard someone.

At Woodstock Institute, as at other nonprofits, the reality of bringing on new staff means that there is a lot of information to share and not necessarily a lot of time to do it. In organizations with a smaller staff, there is often knowledge and information possessed by a single person. The downsides are obvious.

So, when talking about this project, we realized that the immediate importance of it had less to do with succession, in the way the word is often defined, and more to do with organizational sustainability in case any unexpected scenario became real.

A Case Overview: What We Did and How We Did It

To begin the work, we agreed to use existing tools – no need to reinvent the wheel. I identified two resources for review, which I thought would serve the project well.

While they overlapped in some areas, both resources offered an array of samples and tools. From them, we selected what we liked from each, which included taking some of the templates and adapting them to the needs of the organization.

Then, through a series of group meetings (some extended staff meetings, others unique to the project) and individual assignments, we set about the work of gathering, organizing, and creating documents and systems to achieve the goals of increasing access, demystifying processes, supporting smooth onboarding of new staff, and sharing knowledge among the team.

Leadership Development as a Benefit

Another opportunity we seized was the possibility of professional development for staff through the project itself. We did this by dividing up the primary responsibilities for different pieces of the work so that all staff could take the lead and showcase their abilities. This turned out to be an especially distinctive aspect of the project. No one shied away from responsibility. Everyone participated. Staff offered creative approaches to the work, stepped up, and built on their sense of collegiality. At the lively meetings everyone learned something new about their colleagues and the project moved forward at a reasonable and manageable pace.

The Results

The tangible outcomes of the project included:

  • Updated, consistent job descriptions. This was an important aspect of the sustainability work. The new job descriptions were set up in such a way that they could be recruitment tools when posted to fill a position and guides for some aspects of onboarding. Among the additions was a section on key relationships. An essential aspect of success in any position is knowing the different stakeholders with whom one interacts. This proved to be a thoughtful exercise for staff as they reflected on the internal and external people (and organizations) who are closely linked to their work and what supports successful relationships. Another section stressed the values and personal qualities anyone working at the organization needed to possess to be successful.
  • The ‘sustainability folder’ on the organization’s shared drive is the repository for all the documents. It is available to everyone and, while it houses copies of things that exist elsewhere, it is accessible in all senses of the word.
  • Among the stored documents is a folder of contacts. These range from the office of the building and other administrative contacts to funders, and more. Another folder aggregated the various passwords (other than those related to banking) staff must have to support their work and more.
  • There is a ‘master fixed-date’ calendar that clearly lays out the known dates, by month, for everything the organization does. The purpose is to have all the organization’s deadlines and annual activities in one place, thus offering a true picture of the pace and tempo of the organization as a whole. This also increases understanding among different departments (or work groups) when they need to collaborate and/or coordinate. Further, it can guide decisions so that specific initiatives requiring the participation of specific staff aren’t added when they are already at capacity with something else.
  • We developed a training plan to transfer knowledge among staff. Each person has a back-up to train. No longer will only one person know the intricacies of Salesforce or funding reporting requirements. Expanding the knowledge base is crucial to the organization’s well-being.
  • There are now documents outlining how the organization develops its annual workplan, how it onboards new staff and new board members, and – if the need arises – how to install interim leadership and guidelines for conducting a chief executive search.

There is No Reason to Put Off the Conversation

Sustainability. Everyone, anyone, intimately involved in a nonprofit organization can get behind this. Use the concept of sustainability, rather than scary-sounding succession planning, and obstacles will crumble. What makes the case for a sustainability plan? The ability to carry on no matter what. The ability to smoothly onboard new staff. The desire to thrive.

If we begin to think of what it takes to ensure that nonprofits run smoothly no matter what, we can all get on board.