By Heather Dimitt-Fletcher

Institutional memory is a big concern in nonprofit succession planning. Many nonprofits have small staffs, especially at the administrative or operations level. Over 66% of nonprofits in the U.S. have an annual budget under $1 million dollars, thousands are grassroots organizations with dramatically smaller budgets. It isn’t uncommon for people in those positions to each be fulfilling three or four vital roles within the agency, similar to what you might see in a micro-sized business. Whereas, businesses look to cross training as an answer, that’s even more difficult for many nonprofits. Take for instance, the bookkeeping and accounting role in an agency. That’s a very specialized skill set. When you only have one or two other people at the administrative and operations level and they are fulfilling the needs for HR, marketing, program development and management, compliance, fundraising, grant writing, etc., there really isn’t anyone else at that level to cross train to do the books. That leaves cross training someone at the program implementation level which may be fine if your nonprofit provides free or low cost accounting services and all of your program staff are accountants. However, when the majority of nonprofits classified as grassroots to large are health and human services organizations, it’s a bit more challenging if your program staff are social workers or counselors. The challenge of who to cross train also applies when it comes to marketing, grant writing, HR or any other specialized area necessary for effective agency functioning. For most nonprofits, the skills to provide actual service to clients is a bit easier to continue either because there is an actual program manual detailing how service should be provided or because new programming staff have degrees, training and/or experience in the field. Even in programming, there can be difficulties when it comes to understanding the history of clients, building trust with clients, and in knowing contacts at other agencies to whom you can or should make referrals for your clients.

Preserving Memory

If your nonprofit has started succession planning, most likely the plan you’ve developed has been around the Executive Director leaving. What about if your program director moves away or if your only development staff member leaves? Maybe it’s your office manager who has been with the agency for two decades retiring. How much knowledge will leave with those individuals? Not only the big picture “how to do XYZ” type of knowledge but the more subtle nuances of why various grants and contracts have the financial splits that they do, where to find the electronic file backups of your program enrollment applications, who to call at different funding agencies for assistance, the preferred method of communication for each board member, partner agencies and community contacts, etc. These are the subtleties of our jobs that each of us do every day and perfect over the years without even realizing it. As much as anything, they are often the things that make us successful at our jobs but they aren’t things we ever really think to tell anyone else.

If you are a smaller agency where one or two people serve in multiple vital roles, rather than developing a “succession plan” that is only pulled out in the time of a transition, you might want to regularly engage in “succession thinking”. For example, at least two people in your agency regularly interacts with every board member, partner agency and key community contact; two or more people have copies of every grant, contract and memorandum of agreement, along with notes on how to achieve the outcomes specified in those documents; and, the most recent electronic version of every document is kept on the cloud and everyone regularly backs up any documents stored on their computer to the cloud.

The board can also play a vital role in the succession health of a nonprofit organization. Board of Directors’ members can provide valuable assistance to nonprofits not only in helping determine what clients the organization will serve and in what ways but also in helping supplement the skills sets of the administrative and operations staff. It’s crucial to the success of a nonprofit to replace outgoing board members with new board members with skill sets similar to those leaving or with whatever new skills sets the agency needs. Boards can be vital in transmitting institutional memory, especially when you have turnover at the executive staff level. An executive change is not the time when a board wants to realize how little knowledge they have and that they can’t fully assist with the transition.

Identify Needs

My best advice for succession planning is to identify exactly what needs to happen to keep your business’s doors open and operating every day. The services you provide are the reasons you exist but most likely you have specific operating procedures to ensure service continues. What happens “behind the scenes” to keep you going? Who are the key contacts outside of your organization contributing to your operations and success? Make sure multiple people in the organization know the answers to both questions and preferably have met those key contacts, have at least two people who understand the requirements necessary to meet every outstanding obligation and contract, and if possible write down as many answers as you can to those questions so the information can easily be passed along to other staff or your successor.

Detail All of Your Behind the Scenes Activities