A Guide to Succession Planning for Foundation Boards

Vincent Robinson is the founder and managing partner of The 360 Group, an executive search company that places leaders at nonprofits and foundations. Before you hire a search firm, Vincent advises foundation boards to plan ahead for executive transitions to ensure the best possible outcome.

When was the last time your board revisited your foundation’s succession plan?

If you can’t remember when, or if you’re not sure if your board even has a succession plan, then it’s time to put it on your agenda. Hiring your foundation’s next leader is arguably the most critical decision your board will make. And the groundwork for most successful hiring decisions is often laid long before you hire that new leader. Even if you have a dynamic leader in place – and that executive seemingly has no plans to leave for greener pastures – you are doing your organization a disservice if you haven’t taken steps to discuss and spell out how you’ll identify the best possible successor.

As an executive recruiter who has worked with foundations of all types and sizes, I can tell you that the boards that do the work upfront are:

  • In a much better position to identify, recruit, and hire top-quality candidates.
  • Have a clear sense of what they’re looking for in a potential candidate.
  • Can easily identify a search firm that aligns with their needs and values.
  • Are well-positioned to transition smoothly between an outgoing leader and a new one.

Sadly, however, this is the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, foundations that are otherwise well run and respected embark on what are, in essence, fire drill searches. During these fire drill searches, boards receive notice from their current top executive and need to fast-track a hiring process for a replacement on a short timeline. Without doing the necessary work ahead of time, it’s challenging to ensure that the new leader the board is looking for is truly the next leader they need.

Boards compound their risk of hiring a poorly matched leader by rushing their decision when vetting a search firm that can help them identify the right candidate.Good search firms are like good architects – the best ones often don’t have immediate openings on their calendars for new projects. You have to book them weeks – and, in this current market, months – in advance of when their actual work begins. If you end up choosing a firm based solely on the fact that they are immediately available, you might want to consider whether they have the perspective and insights to do the job well – or at least whether they are the right fit for your needs.

The alternative is to be prepared – and to start doing the work before you have a vacancy.

This is important whether you have a longtime leader approaching retirement or a recently hired executive who is just settling into the role. Life happens – and any leader could disappear with little notice. Your board can start preparing for that proverbial “hit by a bus” moment by creating a succession plan.A succession plan provides a clear blueprint for your board on how to move forward with a search. And the process of creating one allows your board to ask and debate essential questions before facing the urgency of filling a vacant role.

As you put together your plan, we recommend taking some time to discuss these four questions:

Who are your stakeholders?

When we conduct searches for foundations, we spend significant time upfront interviewing partners, grantees, community members, and others within the foundation’s ecosystem. These groups provide perspectives on the type of leader needed and whose buy-in is critical for the new leader. This group should reflect various perspectives on your organization.

Who will serve on your search committee?

It’s helpful to discuss in advance who in your organization might have the right skill set and bandwidth to lead a search committee – and who might serve on the committee. This group can include members of your board and staff, as well as outside partners, community members, and grantees. Preparing a list of potential members now can save you time later.  It is important to note that an executive search is a time-consuming endeavor that requires a commitment from the Search Committee members. Strive to make the committee diverse, particularly in terms of “lived experience” and professional backgrounds.

What type of leader will you need?

As organizations evolve, the traits required to lead the organization often change, too. As a result, it’s useful to discuss the type of experience, background, skills, and temperament ideal for your next leader.

Are there likely internal candidates?

Some foundations already have a potential successor (or even multiple potential successors) on the team. Discussing whether that person already exists in your organization can help you identify an interim leader and dictate how you might approach a search. It can also help you create a professional development plan to help your up-and-coming leaders prepare for larger roles.


Additional Recommendations

In bringing together your succession plan, it’s also helpful to interview a search firm or two to understand their philosophies and approaches and get a sense of their typical timeline and budget. These discussions can help you have a short list of potential firms included in your plan – and can often help you work through answers to some of the questions outlined above.

We also recommend talking to others who have gone through similar searches to learn about their approach, identify potential pitfalls, and get recommendations that will shape your succession plan. It’s never too early to begin preparing for your next leader. Start the process now so that you can identify the right search partner – and have a process in place for ensuring that you can continue to operate effectively in the event of a sudden or planned departure.

101 Resource | Last updated: November 12, 2021