Transferring Board Knowledge for Succession

As any community organisation knows, keeping a good Board or committee of management together for a while can be a tough task.
While some organisations now have a limited term of office for their board members to ensure they are continually refreshed and revitalised, even the most stable boards have to deal with the regular turnover of board members.

Board or committee members leave for a variety of reasons. Some people get burned out, others move on for personal reasons or because they leave the area, others leave because of dissatisfaction or friction while others decide after years of devoted services, it’s time to hand someone else the baton.

Whatever the reasons, what this means is that any Board or committee will probably have to deal with a turnover of members over the lifetime of an organisation. This makes the requirement for some form or plan for succession even more important. It is a an area where good leadership is vital in ensuring the process of re-generating the board does not result in the Board losing momentum, focus or performance.

There are a number of requirements for a smooth transition. You need to ensure that valuable corporate and organisational information is communicated among board members and passed on to newer members. There also needs to be a systematic method of recruitment for new Board members.

Managing the transition of new board members is a vital ingredient to ensure the ongoing success of an organisation.

Why plan for succession?

You should always plan for succession to ensure the organisation does not falter when someone leaves, whether this is planned or unplanned. Fixed terms allow little room for surprise, so there is no excuse - it should be a smooth changeover. However, you should also be prepared for that unfortunate time when a board member leaves unexpectedly such as due to overseas work commitments, illness or even death.

Planning for succession is an ongoing responsibility. A last-minute approach may result in a board that lacks the necessary skills, motivation and knowledge to effectively lead the organisation.

How do you plan for succession?

The short answer to that question is: Be Prepared! How your organisation chooses to do this largely depends on your structure and the terms you have set for board members or even the regularity with which your Board changes members (some childcare or pre-school organisations can change over annually).

When one member leaves, the remaining board members should be prepared and recognise where there will be a void - this information should be taken into consideration when appointing another member or encouraging someone to nominate. A nominating committee to short-list candidates for board positions is a good way to keep on top of board appointments.

The committee should:
  • Ensure there is an orientation and screening process in place for new members.
  • Prepare a board member information pack detailing the organisation's vital statistics, goals, values, mission, etc. for incoming members.
  • Make candidates aware of exactly what their role will entail and how much commitment will be required if they become a board member.
  • Identify all the qualities that the board requires in the next year's appointments.
  • Review the current board and determine what has worked and what was missing in terms of board member performance.
  • Identify potential candidates.
  • Invite potential board members to meetings.
  • Seek individuals that have the skills or qualities that can help achieve the organisation's mission.
  • Search widely and constantly monitor any changes in the organisation so board members reflect the needs of the group.
  • Keep existing board members updated on any developments.
  • Implement or consider a mentoring program for future leaders.
  • Evaluate the recruitment process each year.
  • Evaluate the performance of board members to ensure they have fulfilled their responsibilities.
One of the biggest problems facing community groups is ensuring the loss of one key board or committee member doesn't equate with the loss of all the organisational and operational knowledge of how the group works isn't also lost. You don't want to take six months or even a year to recover when someone leaves and the best way to ensure that doesn't happen is to document as much information as possible.

While there has been a lot said and written about corporate governance, the reality for a lot of volunteer organisations, is that the Board and committee are also those managing the change. They are not just there to oversee the organisation but also to run it.

In that situation, losing a committee member can be a greater cost to the organisation because they are the person who knows where the database is, organsed the major event or whose knowledge of how everything works is carried around in their own head. You don't want that knowledge to leave when they do so it is important to ensure your group:
  • Documents information. Minutes, records, proposals, planning documents for major events, databases, contact books etc. Anything of interest or significance should be documented as it is the organisation's long-term memory.
  • Ensures that procedure manuals or operating manuals are created and turned over if someone decides to leave
  • Has an audit each year where you run through the list of all the important information integral to the running of your group and make sure it is updated and kept in a safe place.
  • Promotes open communication between Board members and ensure the relevant information is passed on when Board members leave.
  • Makes sure each board member is aware of each member's skills and expertise.
  • Schedules regular board meetings and make time on the agenda for board members to report on their current projects/events.
  • Encourages self evaluations. This will help identify shortcomings in expertise or skills at the executive level, which in turn will help the nominating committee in their search to find a new member who complements existing board members.
The succession plan works if once a new Board member has been selected, they go through the necessary screening and orientation process, be provided with all the necessary background information and briefing and made aware of all the major challenges and issues facing the organisation.

Depending on the resources, the people and time available, some organisations will also welcome a new member or members with a formal function to ensure the new Board quickly "gels" and understands the roles and expectations. This can include:
  • A team building seminar
  • An informal night with past board and committee members
  • A function for the whole organisation to introduce the new board to staff/volunteers/members
  • An orientation day(s).
  • A presentation/welcome pack of information for new Board members (detailing meeting timetable, contact details (email included), expectations, goals etc