The Soapbox and Toolbox for New York State's Nonprofits

July 26, 2016

Building Your Board’s “Bench Strength” (We Can’t All have a LeBron on Our Team)

The NBA Finals are long over and, wow, what a series.

We saw a rare instance (as in it’s never happened before) where the skill and will of one man trumped the power of an entire team of strong players. Admittedly, the Golden State Warriors had better “bench strength,” but for the first time in NBA history, that couldn’t win the day.

So, life lesson, we can’t all have a LeBron type player on our team – and in the nonprofit board governance world we probably shouldn’t.

That’s essentially what we learned from NYCON’s CEO, Doug Sauer, on today’s webinar “Board Leadership Succession Planning for Arts Groups.”

Building your board’s bench strength is hard but absolutely necessary and worth the work.  Why is it hard? First, we realize that, hey, these people are volunteering for us. How do we tell them that their particular skill set or expertise area may not be what’s needed for the future success of the organization? How do we get peers to hold each other accountable and take staff out of the awkward position of holding members of their supervisory team accountable? How do we plan for, educate, cultivate and deploy our leaders strategically and then hold them accountable for achieving organizational goals?

Basically, said Sauer, it comes down to the following:

  • Setting clearly communicated expectations of roles & responsibilities
  • Providing tools, education and other resources to board members
  • Consistently putting the mission first

At the end of the day, the board of directors exists to ensure that the organization delivers on the mission promise. 

So, what is Board Succession Planning? It’s a formal and serious process. Usually springing from a Strategic Plan (every strategic plan should include a statement on Governance goals), this process identifies and develops current board members with the potential to fill key leadership positions. It asks the critical question “What will we need in terms of board leadership in 2 to 3 years in order to ensure success?”  In Doug’s opinion it relies first on quality self-assessment by board members.

Why has Board Succession Planning been so hard for many nonprofits? Self-reflection and assessment is always hard. In addition to that, in Doug’s experience there are some critical factors (many more were discussed on the webinar) that might indicate that a nonprofit board is likely to be challenged by leadership succession issues.

They can include:

  • The size of the board – 3 to 5 board members will have a hard time defining term limits, leadership roles and transitions.
  • Having a “Founder” driven Board – one personality taking ‘ownership’ of the mission, meetings, and maybe even operations of the organization. This may keep other (valuable) opinions silent.
  • Existing board/officer terms are not consistently adhered to – this one is challenging, as there never seem to be enough “good” board leaders to go around sometimes. But creating and sticking to board and officer terms limits will be a critical tool you can use to move the succession planning needle.

How would a nonprofit go about starting the Succession Planning discussion with the board? Board Leadership Succession starts with your bylaws. The bylaws are your own laws, created by your board.  If you’re making the rules, you should make them right and make sure you follow them consistently. Most importantly, bylaws should identify your officer positions and their roles, the process for nomination and election, authority of officers, terms limits and what to do in case of vacancies on the board.

The bylaws should help clarify the following:

  • The critical officer, director, and committee responsibilities
  • Outline Officer consecutive terms: Are they limited? Are they within or beyond director terms?
  • Is there sufficient “term” time for directors to “rise up through the ranks” and be qualified for leadership positions?
  • Is there a process for removal, if so what are the provisions for removal?
  • Does removal as an officer also mean removal from the board?

A bylaw review process is a great way to start the dialogue about succession in a systematic way. Once the structural elements are in place there’s a natural segue to a board discussion about how to operationalize what’s been written.

Good point. How do we operationalize a succession plan? We know it’s hard to keep track of term limits, committee assignments, areas of interest and expertise for each board member, etc. Doug recommended a board succession planning outline to our participants and also shared with them a template that NYCON uses to track board members participation “through the ranks through the years.”

The Succession Plan format that Doug suggests is outlined below:

  • Background & Current Status of Officer Leadership
  • Purpose of Plan and for what Position
  • Citations of Relevant Bylaw Provisions
  • Addresses Three Transition Circumstances:
    • Temporary Absence during Term of Office
    • Permanent Vacancy during Term of Office
    • Unexpected Notice to Not Seek Re-election to Office

tools.jpgOur members also have access to the board tracking template that was shared, please email us for your copy.

In closing, Doug gave some best practices and ‘tips’ on how to start the succession planning process and how to fully integrate it into your board governance processes on a regular basis.

Here are just a few…

  • Make sure your bylaws are clear, up-to-date, consistent among relevant provisions, and facilitate the process of succession
  • Incorporate “Chair-elect” and “Treasurer-elect” into your language & job descriptions
  • Have someone other than the Treasurer be the chair of your major finance committee (and be “Treasurer-elect”)
  • Create a strong & active board development or nominations committee
  • Perform annual evaluation of the Executive Director
  • Have a succession plan for your Executive Director and other key employees
  • Include board & staff leadership in the development of your strategic plan
  • Encourage if not require officers and other board leaders  to attend governance - leadership training

what_are_next_steps.pngIn the end, our participants really enjoyed the webinar, though it’s a lot of information to take in. Those of you who might be staff or board leaders of an organization funded by NYSCA can receive assistance from NYCON for free. Simply put your request in here.

NYCON Members not funded by NYSCA receive assistance at affordable rates, or we can potentially help find capacity building funding in your region. Please contact us for more information.

Members of NYCON can always listen to our recorded webinars here.



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NYCON develops and promotes an effective and vibrant charitable nonprofit community throughout New York State.  We strengthen organizational capacity, act as an advocate and unifying voice, help to inform philanthropic giving, and conduct research and planning to demonstrate relevance and impact.