A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How Leadership Succession Planning Can More Deeply Engage Family and Board

This post is the second in a 2-part series on leadership succession planning. Read part 1 on the importance of planning for leadership succession now. Exponent Philanthropy members can explore these themes further in an article by the same authors in our Fall 2015 issue of Essentials.

Leadership succession planning is a process, not just a set of stated expectations. It’s a conversation and exploration to generate shared understanding and clarity of roles, responsibilities, and agreements.

These conversations are also a prime opportunity to more deeply engage family and board members in philanthropy. “It takes one strike of a match to light up a kid’s interest in an issue in the world,” observes Lisa Parker, executive director of the Lawrence Welk Family Foundation. “I say [leadership] succession starts in childhood. There’s a milieu of inclusiveness and exposure, so start early.”

A leadership succession plan is an organization’s commitment to continuity and stability.

It’s a written plan that identifies the steps by which leadership will be assumed when there is either a planned or unplanned departure by key leaders—board or staff.

Foundations cultivate greater success in this planning when they acknowledge there will be different personal and generational approaches to foundation governance and management. It helps to know “the psychology of the generations and your family’s dynamics,” notes Carter Paden, Grandview Foundation secretary/treasurer.

Nancy and John Colina, co-founders of the Colina Foundation, share that their adult children “are in the busy time of life. They panic a bit at the thought of taking over the foundation right now. It will depend on where their lives are.” Like Lisa, they advise to start leadership succession planning early: “Put forth the idea of transitioning, sharing the power of the foundation.”

When the issue of leadership succession was raised at the Grandview Foundation, its board created a dynamic, formal learning process to prepare the family’s next generation for board service. This includes individual next generation members partnering with an uncle or aunt through the learning process; going on site visits; attending board meetings; and participating in conferences to garner deeper understanding about the field of philanthropy.

What steps do others take to engage successors?

  • Many foundations establish junior boards for younger members with designated pools of grant funds. These first steps into organized philanthropy inculcate the next generation in the foundation’s culture, values, and work—and help determine their level of interest and commitment to future service on the foundation board.
  • It is also not uncommon for foundations to provide access to discretionary grants as an entrée to philanthropy. The experience of learning about and prioritizing community needs, and the grantmaking process itself, gives members a hands-on and manageable introduction to what’s involved in the larger operations of the foundation.
  • One small family foundation instituted rotating chair duties at board meetings. A different member chairs each board meeting, which gives them a shot at experiencing a leadership role.

Whereas much of succession planning is about transitioning to new leaders, the process also affords foundations an opportunity to retain the expertise and engagement of senior family and board members.

The Longview Foundation created an advisory group of members who have rotated off the board. “We call upon them for advice on specific issues,” remarks President Lois Adams-Rodgers. “We may convene a phone call; it’s a commitment to access. Keeping it informal is excellent because they only have to be as involved as they want or need to be.”

Some foundations also create emeritus roles for founders or long-serving board members to honor—and retain—their engagement and contributions.

Foundations can stoke the fires of interest in philanthropy as they plan for leadership succession and transition. Success comes when they provide a diverse range of leadership and engagement opportunities for family and board members across the spectrum.

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