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Legacy of Leadership: Why succession planning is critical in nonprofit development

Production Solutions

Passing the leadership baton is not always easy, but not being prepared to pass it is even worse. Yes, we’re talking about Succession Planning.

It’s a challenge that all organizations will face. Take Ralph Lauren recently stepping down as CEO of his iconic brand, or the dozens of start-up entrepreneurs profiled in the Inc. Magazine 500 who cite stepping aside as the key to their growth.

This planning is even more important for our nonprofit partners, and we were elated to learn from this year’s Nonprofit Employment Survey that more and more partners are taking it seriously.

For the past three years, we’ve partnered with Nonprofit Pro (formerly Fundraising Success) to conduct the State of Employment in the Nonprofit Sector survey, tapping the insights of hundreds of nonprofit leaders. Each year we see the typical trends in retention, compensation and hiring: Development positions are hardest to fill, and Funding/Salary/Benefits continue to be the largest roadblocks in completing fundraising teams.

“Each time we do this survey, we’re looking for trends in nonprofit employment,” says Greg Albright, PS|PS Digital Co-Founder and Principal. “We really want to understand where our partners are struggling internally. That’s our job, to proactively identify and meet our partner’s needs so they can focus on accomplishing their mission.”

This year, we saw more and more nonprofits turning to outside resources like recruiting agencies and professional organizations to attract top fundraising talent, as well as tapping their personal networks to find committed and qualified candidates. “Great news for us as partners, but what we also saw emerging is a challenge we’re facing right here at PS|PS Digital – succession planning,” says Greg.

Succession Planning: The process of identifying and developing internal staff with the potential to fill key leadership positions.

“That’s a challenge whether you’re a for-profit or a nonprofit, it’s the elephant in the room,” says George Lizama, PS|PS Digital CEO and Co-Founder. “We are putting our own succession plan in place and thinking strategically about the future of our mission. It is not easy. It’s gritty, it’s down in the details, it takes work, and we have to define things we never thought needed definition.  And it’s definitely more challenging for our nonprofit partners, who need to plan for the future while still trying to cure cancer, save the Earth and feed hungry children.”

So what can nonprofits and fundraising partners alike do to ease the burden of the inevitable? “I think we really uncovered something with this year’s survey,” says Greg. “Professional Development is always a discussion topic, but this year we saw more and more respondents setting aside critical dollars to support it.”

Employment Survey InfographicOf the nonprofit respondents who have funding for professional development, the average spent per fundraising/development staff member is $1,000, allocated for online training and webinars, industry seminars and conferences, internal training programs and tuition reimbursement.

Greg also notes that the second largest challenge to completing fundraising teams is the applicant’s skills, qualifications and experience.

“By investing in professional development, nonprofits can mitigate this challenge. These resources, both internally and externally, can help enable our partners to hire capable individuals who might not yet have the experience desired.”

“We send our leadership staff to trainings, seminars and conferences hosted by partners like the [Association of Fundraising Professionals] and the [Direct Marketing Association of Washington]” says George. “We don’t plan to work forever, but we do plan to continue our quarter-century of successful fundraising partnerships. Nobody can expect to do that without training new leaders within the organization.”

In addition to highlighting opportunities for our nonprofit partners to grow, the 2015 Survey also exposed weaknesses. Sixteen (16)  percent of respondents reported their Senior Communications positions being among the hardest to fill , second only to Development and Fundraising professions. Communications (or marketing) leadership ensures that mission and need are clearly communicated to donors, clients and the community at large. A gap in communications could mean a gap in fundraising.

“We see that nearly 70% of organizations report their marketing and fundraising departments share the same goals, but equally as many organizations tell us that they are challenged in keeping these departments aligned,” says Greg.

This is not uncommon in the nonprofit sector, and it consistently poses a challenge, pitting two equally important departments against each other. “Many of our respondents in communications roles told us that fundraising initiatives trump communications initiatives, and our development respondents told us that communications initiatives are often costly with little return on investment,” says Greg.

So what can nonprofits do? Greg suggests eliminating silos and communicating early and often. “Each fundraising initiative should have a clear communications component, and each communications initiative should have the mission of using specific messaging to drive revenue,” says Greg.

Whether you’re building a team, trying to keep one together, or planning for the next leadership dynasty, this year’s Nonprofit Employment survey reminds us that success starts within your organization. Communicate clearly, eliminate silos and develop your talent to achieve both internal and external success.

The 2015 State of Employment in the Nonprofit Sector appeared in the October 2015 issue of NonprofitPro and is available here