Strategies for a Smooth Succession of Board Leadership

A few years ago I met with an executive director of a nonprofit who told me, “My board chair and my treasurer are both ‘interim’.” When I asked what that meant, the reply was: “Neither wants to continue as an officer, but no one else will do it.”

I wish I could say that situation is unique, but I’ve seen this problem present itself again and again at nonprofits large and small. More often than not, the board and staff get comfortable with a board chair and, without other candidates for the job in sight, the role of board chair becomes a “life sentence.”

This kind of “life sentence” is not only unfair to your lead volunteers but short-changes your organization too:

  • Turnover in leadership is good for the organization, prompting new ideas and encouraging new approaches in support of the mission.
  • Developing new leaders not only has value for your organization but also for the community and society in general.
  • Without a planned succession of leadership, your organization is vulnerable to sudden and unplanned leadership changes.
  • Stagnation in leadership is never a good message when it comes to your donors, funders, stakeholders, or staff.

So if your board chair feels trapped with no way out, or you regularly struggle to find board members ready and willing to serve as officers, consider these strategies for revitalizing your board leadership pipeline:

  • Align board recruitment with strategic priorities – Recruit board members who have the specific skills you’ll need around the board table in order to achieve your goals.
  • Recruit proven leaders – Look for board candidates who have chaired a board or committee, led an effort, managed an organization or department where they work, or have otherwise demonstrated the ability to take a leadership role.
  • Make leadership an expectation for all board members – During recruitment, articulate an expectation that every board member should be willing to take on a leadership role during his or her tenure. This may not be an officer’s role, but board members should know that they may be expected to chair a committee or taskforce at some point.
  • Provide them with leadership experience – Build the confidence of your board members by getting them to chair a taskforce or committee or by placing them in meaningful roles in planning an event or activity. Watch how they do, and then move those who do it well into more significant roles.
  • Put policies in place that make leadership turnover a requirement – One of the major advantages of term limits is that they ensure rigor. Without them, it becomes too easy to take the easy way out. Put officer term limits in place and abide by them.
  • “Test drive” your volunteers – Service on committees, task-forces, or in other volunteer roles can provide great opportunities to engage potential leaders and see how they do. For those who hold promise, look for additional opportunities to build their leadership skills and position them as future candidates for the board.

A board with which I am familiar experienced the sudden resignation of the chair, the vice chair (who had previously agreed to be the next chair), and the secretary. Because the board had been following the practices described above, they rallied, experienced leaders stepped forward, and they moved through what would have been an otherwise traumatic transition with ease. It can be done, but it doesn’t happen by chance!

This blog post, written by Jeff Wahlstrom, is an example of the kind of advice you can find in the blog section of our website: To contact Jeff, or any member of our consulting team, please use our contact form to get in touch today.