Boards and succession

by Jini Stolk

BoardConnect, an organization out of Sydney, Australia “dedicated to providing advice, support and skill-development for the boards of non-profit organizations,” has been posting some useful materials on LinkedIn, including this check list on Board Recruitment and Succession Planning.

I know BoardConnect through its founder David Fishel who’s been working long and hard to fill a need, recognized here by the Toronto Arts Council/Toronto Arts Foundation: if we want to strengthen non-profit arts organizations, we should be providing skills, knowledge and support to their board members. We all have great hopes and expectations of our volunteer boards and board members are eager to make a real difference, but with all the embarrassment of riches on the topic of governance, there’s a dearth of practical, usable materials for boards to learn from.

I like the simplicity of documents like this model board succession plan and this board profile worksheet from BoardConnect. The latter should help boards avoid the embarrassment of being profiled in the Toronto Star as being In Dire Need of Diversity. It’s really too late in the game for a Toronto arts organization to be caught out with 36 out of 36 board members who are white, or a board that’s overwhelmingly male.

Note that Germany recently became the latest country to legislate the percentage of board seats of its largest corporations that must be filled by women. Please let’s make these changes before we’re forced to (and while we’re at it, let’s answer Kelly Thornton’s International Women’s Day call to turn the tides of gender inequity on our stages.)

Diversity on boards – which can encompass age, experience in for profit or non-profit sectors, place of residence, country of origin, and many other considerations – is beyond all else a necessity of good governance. Nonprofit Quarterly (whose 4-part webinar series on Executive Transitions I’m sorry I missed) just opened up another line of thinking about succession planning in this piece with its challenge to all of us to “Shift the framework for succession planning to deep sustainability.”

Quoting from a new study by Third Sector New England, it says “It is time to change how the sector thinks about and approaches succession planning. Succession planning is not just about preparing for an individual leader transition; nor should it be viewed as a technical fix or a transactional exercise. Rather, it is about ensuring organizational sustainability by identifying and addressing key vulnerabilities so that the organization is not dependent on any one leader, funder, strategy, or way of thinking…”

Even more, it calls on us to “Shift the vision for governance.” “The expectations and responsibilities of boards need to shift in favor of governance over fundraising, and that means developing a shared vision for the organization, along with strategies to implement that vision, achieving operational excellence, and, yes, finding the resources to support the work. A short-term focus on fundraising undermines long-term sustainability and leads to continued dissatisfaction between leaders and their boards…This shift means improved communication about roles and priorities to be able to move forward with a shared vision…, a shared understanding of how to achieve it, and shared accountability. Mutual understanding will help organizations be more sustainable and responsive, develop a healthy culture, and serve their communities more effectively.”

How? “Shift the structural paradigm to robust investment in the sector.” “Nonprofits can run great programs, but in order for organizations to be healthy and sustainable in the long-term, leaders and funders alike need to face up to the realities of what it takes to lead and manage organizations—financial capital, leadership development, learning and innovation and a well-compensated staff…so that organizations can effectively fulfill their missions.”

Such a lot to think about.

Coming up

I will do my best to tackle some of these issues in a new series of The Art of Good Governance workshops presented by the Toronto Arts Council with Business for the Arts. Keep an eye out for details.


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