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Building organizational capacity: board succession planning is the first step toward ensuring that your organization remains focused and relevant and has the capacity to succeed.

TO ADAPT TO THE EVER-CHANGING ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH they must operate, organizations need to remain fluid--that is, they must be clear about mission, purpose, and strategy while continually fine-tuning their focus in response to social and funding trends, new technologies, and constituent needs. This ability to be fluid is also one hallmark of a high-capacity board, making succession planning more important than ever.


Because the board is responsible for the governance of the organization, it must drive the succession planning process. Outlined here are the key steps a board can take to engage in the kind of planning that will yield great future leaders.

The framework

The first component of board succession planning is valuing every seat you have on the board and recognizing that each represents an opportunity to increase your organization's skill set, relationships with key constituents, access to resources, and connections to the larger community. The final component is valuing every individual you choose to fill one of those seats and providing each with the information, resources, training, and support needed to succeed as individual board members and as a collective board.

Between the first and final components exists the process of identifying

* the organization's core values;

* where the organization is going and what it needs to get there;

* skills and resources the organization currently has available through its volunteer leadership;

* additional resources, skills, and connections that would benefit the organization; and

* responsibilities and expectations of all board members.

Only after these elements have been identified is the board in a good position to recruit the kind of future leaders who can best contribute to organizational success.


1. Shared values. Shared values provide the foundation upon which an organization can build. If the key values of an organization have not been clearly articulated by the board and the chief staff executive, you may obtain leaders with the desired skills but without a commitment to the organization's mission. Several simple exercises exist for identifying shared values. For example, as a board exercise, select from a list the values (e.g., trust, integrity, respect, etc.) that you feel best represent the organization. Whether this exercise is done individually or collectively, the critical aspect is the discussion that occurs after the key values are named. Discuss how the organization is currently living out those values and reach agreement about how you all want the organization to live out those values.

2. Organizational direction. Ideally, this is an outgrowth of developing your organization's strategic vision and goals and working with the chief staff executive to identify the variety of resources required to attain those goals. Incorporating these things into a planning document, sharing it with the full board and staff, and incorporating it into committee work are great ways to orient new board members and keep volunteer leaders on track.

Take Earth Share, a membership federation of local, national, and international environmental and conservation charities, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, as an example. In 2001, Earth Share completed a multi-year negotiation resulting in a network of affiliates and national organizations that allowed Earth Share and many state environmental federations to work together rather than compete. To facilitate this new relationship, Earth Share changed its governance structure. The board is now composed of 11 representatives from its national member organizations, 11 from its state affiliates, and 11 at-large members. Earth Share's resulting plan document is an effective way to inform its national members, state affiliates, and board members about the direction and work of the organization during upcoming years.

3. Resources and leadership gaps. Across time as an organization shifts its direction or strategic focus--or on occasion, its mission--the kind of leaders the organization needs on its board will also change. When these shifts occur, it is important to have respectful procedures for evaluating a board member's involvement, acknowledging what a board member has contributed, and creating opportunities for stepping down when appropriate.

4. Additional resources, skills, and community connections. When board recruitment processes are built around asking friends or colleagues to participate, boards tend to become homogeneous. Succession planning can help make the transition to a more diversified board a more thoughtful process. For example, diversity in age, race, gender, ability, ethnicity--and perspective--can bring a wealth of resources to an organization. If your association's mission involves working on issues of medical research, for example, it may make sense to include representatives from the medical community on your board. This is especially true if the organization is trying to move into a new market.

5. Responsibilities and expectations. Too often the process for identifying board expectations is the result of a small group of people using norms established by another organization and presenting those norms as the way things should be. If current policies don't exist regarding the expectations and responsibilities of board members, engage your fellow volunteer leaders in a conversation about what responsibilities and behaviors you all are willing to assume and what you expect from each other. A checklist or a short survey are two simple ways to gather preliminary input that can lead to more substantive discussions.

A word of caution: Adding new responsibilities, even after board discussion, may pose a difficulty for retaining current leaders and recruiting new ones. As you recruit new board members, be open about the expectations. Also, don't expect everyone to fulfill a given responsibility in exactly the same way. Play to each board member's strengths and work with the staff team to provide any necessary training to help your colleagues succeed.

Once you've taken stock of organizational values, direction, assets, leadership gaps, and leadership expectations, you are ready to recruit new leaders.

Recruitment basics

The recruitment process can take a variety of forms. What is critical is organizational clarity about the process and the involvement of both board and staff leadership. Having both groups involved affirms the partnership between management and governance and establishes that relationship with prospective board members early on. Following are the key steps in the process:

1. Identify prospects. After you have identified the specific skill sets desired in new board members, your organization's network, which includes the personal networks of all volunteer leaders as well as staff, is typically the best place to start identifying individuals. However, if you are reaching out to new communities, rather than thinking in terms of filling a board seat, consider first establishing an organizational connection to build trust, awareness, and understanding. This may result from a partnership or joint activity with an organization with which there is a mission match or that reaches the audience you seek to involve. Establishing these organizational connections will help you recognize appropriate individuals when they come along.

2. Encourage commitment. Use an application form as part of the board member recruitment process. It serves several purposes, not the least of which is to encourage applicants to make a personal commitment to the organization if chosen to fill a board seat. Three key questions to include: Why do you want to serve on the board of this organization? Will you be able to fulfill all board member expectations and responsibilities? What skills, resources, or community connections would you bring to this board?

3. Meet personally with prospects. Board members should meet every prospect in person. This meeting is an opportunity to begin the orientation process by communicating who you are as an organization and what you do. As such, this also provides an opportunity for a prospective board member to find out what will be expected of him or her and the current opportunities and challenges the organization faces.

4. Get approval from the full board. The final step in the recruitment process is to bring prospects back to the full board for approval. Remember, election to the board isn't the final step in this process. It is the beginning of the next phase, which begins with the board orientation and continues with ongoing training and support.

Training and evaluation essentials

Regardless of prior board experience, to be truly effective a board member must understand the business of your nonprofit organization and his or her role as a board member within that context. Here are a few ways to make your board recruits great:

1. Build leadership. Whether filling an officer or a committee chair position or enhancing the skills and leadership capacity of the board as a whole, leadership training is an important component of succession planning, and it's one that is generally tackled by the staff executive team in close cooperation with the board. Building on the leadership abilities of the board goes beyond assessing the organization's needs and deciding who can bring those resources and skills to bear. Building leadership means incorporating a process for leadership development into board service. One way this happens is through volunteer training. Another way is by providing opportunities for individuals to exercise their leadership capabilities through committee or ad hoc project teams.

2. Maintain knowledge. Through a thoughtful and intentional succession plan, you reduce the board's risk of losing valuable knowledge at the end of a leader's term. As you build board leadership and instill organizational ownership, make sure that information and knowledge vital to the success of the organization is passed on. One way to do this is through a mentor program that pairs novice board members with more seasoned leaders to encourage information sharing.

3. Evaluate progress. Whether you use multiyear strategic planning or another planning activity, an annual evaluation process is a must. This allows the board to hold the chief staff executive accountable for the organization's progress toward goals, identify new and emerging issues and trends to monitor, prioritize activities and direction for the next year, and evaluate its involvement across the past year and how it can best support the organization in the coming year.

Assessment of board and board member accomplishments--whether done as a self-evaluation or as a group evaluation--should include questions that discern whether the board, collectively, and board members, individually, have fulfilled their obligations, and, if not, what got in the way. The discussions sparked by the evaluations will give the board an opportunity to review and reaffirm, or to adjust, the expectations and responsibilities it established for itself.

The outcomes

Succession planning isn't for boards only. It's also an important component of committee work, volunteer recruitment and development, and staff leadership plans (see related article in this issue, "Turnover at the Top," starting on page 59). If you make succession planning an ongoing board activity built around understanding the resources, skills, and connections the organization needs to strategically advance its mission, and then help to develop and support the leadership you bring on board, your board will surely enhance its capacity for success. A board that uses a thoughtful, intentional, consistent approach to board recruitment should see a return for its efforts within the first year. The rewards include clarity about who should be recruited, board members who become engaged more quickly, and people with a broader range of perspective and experience filling each seat at the table.

Deb Furry, an independent consultant in Portland, Oregon, is the president of the Earth Share of Oregon Board of Directors. E-mail:
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Article Details
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Author:Furry, Deb
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:Intentional plans for unintended transitions.
Next Article:New heights in volunteerism: the efforts of the six ASAE Summit Award winners speak the truth: Associations make society better.

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