A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Why It’s Important to Start Planning for Leadership Succession Now

“Our foundation had succession planning thrust upon us,” shares John Valliant, president of the Grayce B. Kerr Fund. “We had been talking about succession for some time, and then we were blindsided by illness and death.”

Fortunately, not every foundation faces such sudden and tragic events. But experiences of this nature are profound reminders of the importance of intentionally preparing for the future.

We know that leadership transitions are inevitable, and that they are moments of evolution and change that affect people and organizations. Leadership transitions can also be disruptive and create a sense of loss—so much so that we often choose to avoid thinking ahead and acting on that inevitability.

The good news is that we can manage transition by being prepared in the form of succession planning. There are many dimensions of succession, from changes in board members or board and staff leadership to engagement of next generations. In every case, leadership succession is fundamentally about the orderly transfer, or sharing, of power.

Anticipating and thoughtfully preparing for leadership succession is also considered best practice. Nancy Colina, co-founder of the Colina Foundation, notes that “if we are looking long term for the foundation, succession is part of that.” And Carter Paden, secretary/treasurer of the Grandview Foundation, observes that “succession planning is a subset of strategic planning.”

Start Now

There’s no time, then, like the present to begin looking at how your foundation will manage leadership succession into the future. John Valliant recommends “putting the [leadership succession] issue on the table. When you leave, you want the organization to go forward in the way you want. When you’re gone, you can’t influence that as much, so talk and plan for it now.”

Start your conversations and actions based on your foundation’s values, mission, and vision. Let these fundamentals guide and define your path of planning and action. “You have to clarify what the first value of the foundation is,” suggests Karen Reinberger Hooser, president of the Reinberger Foundation. Give consideration to the donor’s intent, the foundation’s history, its culture, and its core purpose and practice. For example, Lisa Parker, executive director of the Lawrence Welk Family Foundation, tells of how the foundation identified “family heroes whose values” the members want to honor.

A leadership succession plan is a written agreement that identifies the process by which leadership will be assumed when there is either a planned or unplanned departure by key organizational leaders. Who is prepared to assume responsibility in the absence of those responsible? What policies or procedures are in place to enable that to occur?

Sometimes it only takes a simple question or comment to initiate the conversation. “When we were on a retreat, someone asked what happens when something happens to [me],” remarks Linda McDavitt, CEO and president of The Genevieve and Ward Orsinger Foundation.

Whereas he conveys this with a wink and a nod, John Colina, co-founder of the Colina Foundation, says that “death is the ultimate succession plan. I have stated that someday I am going to die.” He and his wife, Nancy, describe how they are approaching leadership succession with a “more gentle, slow style. How will this piece fit the whole of it?” Their advice to other foundations? “Start very early, work very slowly, make it fun, and be flexible. Then, do what you say you are going to do.”

The second post in this 2-part series will explore how leadership succession planning creates opportunities to more deeply engage family and board members in your philanthropy.

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