The failure or success of an executive transition largely depends on an organization’s succession planning process. Through engagements with African nonprofit leaders we found that many organizations are inadequately prepared for recruiting and onboarding new executives. Nonprofits and foundations sometimes carry on for months without filling key roles, causing uncertainty and instability among employees, donors, and even beneficiaries. Even after these roles are eventually filled, new executives spend months trying to understand the dynamics and operations of the organization because of various internal challenges. In fact, 67% of nonprofit leaders surveyed have found adjusting to a new organization quite challenging, with 83% citing the lack of a clear and documented succession plan as a major problem.
So how can your nonprofit or foundation avoid these pitfalls? Certainly, if you’re a founder, CEO, or board member, you need to have a succession plan in place immediately. However, understanding the following challenges identified by newly hired executives can also help shed light on the situation and what to avoid in your organization.
Sudden Transitions Resulting in Poor Handover
60% of executives surveyed did not experience a formal handover process with their predecessors due to sudden departures. Although these cases are quite common, an effective succession planning process should leave your organization well prepared for all contingencies. At the very least, a process and procedure document should be available for the new executive. In cases where there are no handover documents, board members or a selected board committee (a smaller group of board members) should be able to take the new executive through all facets of the organization.
Not Enough Support from the Board
The role of the board of directors in the recruitment and early honeymoon phase of a new executive hire is critical and can help repair any damage a bad transition may have caused. In reality, however, new executives see board member support drop almost immediately after they have been hired. With up to 50% of nonprofits surveyed relying on their board to navigate executive recruitment, the incoming executive should continue to receive board members’ support beyond the recruitment stage. This will help to instill and demonstrate trust and confidence in the new executive.
Confronting Programme and Financial Data Gaps
Data and information gaps about programmes and finances are one of the most commonly cited challenges facing new executives. 80% of new hires surveyed said that these gaps affected overall work productivity and created distrust among staff particularly during the first six months to one year on the job. Organizations need to practice and prioritize sound budgeting and accounting of finances and monitoring and evaluation of programmes. Unfortunately, these are areas that many African nonprofit organizations and foundations have been known to be lacking. Board members and senior executives can plug these gaps by enforcing strong ethical and administrative processes.
Transitions are an inevitable part of the culture of organizations and a detailed and documented succession plan ensures that organizations are better prepared for them. As your organization expands, loses key employees, and provides new job opportunities, succession planning guarantees that you either have employees internally who are being groomed to fill new roles, or that there is a proper recruitment and transition process led by the board or an external agency.