Board Leadership Succession: What Do We Do When No One Will Step Up?

I recently met with an executive director of a nonprofit who told me, “My board chair and my treasurer are both ‘interim’.” When I asked the E.D. what that meant, the reply was: “Neither of them wants to continue as officers, but no one else from the board will take their places.”

I wish I could say that situation is unique, but I’ve seen this problem present itself again and again at nonprofits large and small. More often than not, the board and staff get comfortable with a board chair and, without other candidates for the job in sight, they ignore or rewrite their officer term limits or find other good excuses for convincing the chair to remain in place.

This kind of “life sentence” is not only unfair to your lead volunteers, but short-changes your organization, too:

  • Turnover in leadership is good for the organization, prompting new ideas and encouraging new approaches in support of the mission
  • Developing new leaders not only has value for your organization but also for the community and society in general
  • Without a planned succession of leadership, your organization is vulnerable to sudden and unplanned leadership changes
  • Stagnation in leadership is never a good message when it comes to your donors, funders, stakeholders, or staff
“So, what do we do?”

It is highly unlikely you will be able (or will want to) recruit a new person to your board and have him or her step-in and become the chair, so you may indeed need to coach a current member to commit to the role on an “interim” basis to meet the short-term needs.

Just don’t stop there!

Use these strategies to revitalize your board leadership pipeline:

  • Align board recruitment with strategic priorities. Recruit board members who have the specific skills you’ll need around the board table in order to achieve your goals. (Check out MANP’s Strategic Board Recruitment Toolkit to help you.)
  • Recruit proven leaders. Look for board candidates who have chaired a board or committee, led an effort, managed an organization or department where they work, or have otherwise demonstrated the ability to take a leadership role.
  • Make leadership an expectation for all board members. During recruitment, articulate an expectation that every board member should be willing to take on a leadership role during his or her tenure. This may not be an officer’s role, but board members should know that they may be expected to chair a committee or task force at some point.
  • Provide them with leadership experience. Build the confidence of your board members by getting them to chair a task force or committee or by placing them in meaningful roles in planning an event or activity. Watch how they do, and then move those who do it well into more significant roles.
  • Put policies in place that make leadership turnover a requirement. One of the major advantages of term limits is that it requires rigor. It is too easy to let things slide if there is no requirement to do so. Put officer term limits in place and abide by them.
  • “Test drive” your volunteers. Service on committees, task-forces, or in other volunteer roles can provide great opportunities to engage potential leaders and see how they do. For those who hold promise, look for additional opportunities to build their leadership skills and position them as future candidates for the board.
It really works.

A few years ago, a board with which I am familiar experienced the sudden resignation of the chair, the vice chair (who had previously agreed to be the next chair), and the secretary. Because the board had been following the practices described above, they rallied, experienced leaders stepped forward, and they moved through what would have been an otherwise traumatic transition with ease. It can be done, but it doesn’t happen by chance!

About the Author

Jeff WahlstromJeff Wahlstrom is managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting. He has more than 30 years of hands-on experience as a nonprofit leader, board member, and consultant to an extensive list of clients, large and small, throughout Maine. He regularly provides counsel to boards on governance best practices, succession and transition planning, and strategic planning. Jeff has developed an online board self-assessment tool and strategic board recruitment toolkit for Maine nonprofits, and he is a frequent speaker on a wide range of board governance and nonprofit management topics.