From Board to Staff: Strategies for Nonprofit Engagement and Succession

As a nonprofit leader, ensuring strong engagement from your board members, employees, and future leaders is critical to a strong culture, advancing your organization’s mission, and achieving long-term success and sustainability.

Board Engagement

Engagement must start at the very top with an informed and committed board of directors who understand all aspects of the organization, including the strategic and future vision, their role as board members, and their fiduciary responsibilities. Board members are required to go one level deeper and grasp not just what the organization does but why it exists—its mission, vision, and values.

Proper onboarding and ongoing education are essential for educating and engaging board members. This helps board members understand their roles and responsibilities, especially when first joining the board. Knowing what role the board plays in decision-making, policy-making, and implementing operating policies is vital. Understanding expectations is critical to aligning the expectations of the organization and board members and building strong relationships between the executive leadership team and the board.

Ensuring board meetings are structured and planned with a detailed agenda and action items will ensure meetings are productive and meaningful. Spend time on strategy and vision and offer opportunities for collaboration between members. Have breakout discussions in smaller groups, then come together to share what was discussed. The most dynamic and engaged boards typically are involved with the strategic vision today and in the future. If possible, limit the reporting elements – CEO update, president and chair update, finance committee update, governance update, etc.  – and make that part of a consent agenda.

Another tactic to boost board engagement is to ask board members to reflect on how they’ve advanced the mission, utilizing a “board buddy” mentoring system for new members. This creates accountability, helps board members build connections, and offers an avenue to share their ongoing worth for the organization.

Employee Engagement

Engagement must extend beyond the board. Employees at all levels need to feel committed and connected to their work, and strong employee engagement is directly tied to financial health and profitability. Employees should feel like they belong, fit in, and are accepted into the organization’s culture.

An engaged employee will see and understand the connection to their work and feel they are making a difference and positively contributing. Career progression and advancement of employees should be a high priority. Leaders should regularly meet with employees to understand their career goals and aspirations, often leading to stronger retention.

Anonymous employee surveys, administered regularly, are a great way to assess engagement and gather critical feedback. Surveys demonstrate an organization’s interest in its people and their experiences. What is their attitude toward the organization? How do they feel about the work they are doing? Depending on the organization’s size, straightforward, cost-effective survey platforms and tools exist. Keeping surveys short will help get stronger response rates and help avoid survey fatigue.

Making employees feel valued through expanded benefits, wellness programs, opportunities for growth, and regular feedback and recognition can significantly impact morale and productivity. For example, offering additional holidays, increasing PTO, adding diverse holiday closures, or floating a summer Friday policy can also boost morale and employee satisfaction. Mental and physical health and wellness programs, not just for employees but also for their family members, further demonstrate commitment to employees and their overall well-being.

Another key engagement strategy is providing avenues for employees to connect around shared interests and experiences, such as through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). ERGs can focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), remote work, and community volunteerism.

Integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into succession planning by ensuring leadership represents the communities you serve. While some employees may feel DEI initiatives like ERGs have “gone too far,” nonprofit leaders should focus on clearly communicating these efforts’ purpose and value while respecting individual participation choices.

Future Leaders

Succession planning is critical for nonprofits for planned retirements and unexpected departures or transitions. A formal succession plan helps mitigate organizational and operational risks, ensure smooth leadership transitions, and maintain institutional knowledge when key personnel depart. Begin by Identifying specialized and hard-to-replace roles, assessing your talent pipeline, creating development plans for potential successors, and balancing the promotion of internal candidates with bringing in fresh external perspectives.

Identifying the next generation of future leaders is a step all nonprofits should take. How will you help develop them over time to get them where they want or need to be? Identify success criteria and what will help get them there. What skill sets are required for each critical role? Creating development plans can help tailor the plan and assess

Cross-training employees and having them shadow other roles is a valuable practice that helps build engagement and develop future leaders while strengthening succession planning. It allows employees to gain a broader understanding of the organization’s operations and challenges and develop new skills and competencies. This not only prepares them for potential leadership roles but also enhances their job satisfaction and engagement.

When engaging future leaders, proactively identifying high-potential employees is a crucial step. These are individuals who demonstrate the ability and aspiration to rise within the organization and take on leadership roles. Identifying them involves a comprehensive assessment of their performance, potential, and alignment with the organization’s values and culture. Providing them with mentors and growth opportunities and involving them in strategic conversations were essential. Hiring processes should also screen for candidates who seem highly engaged and are a strong culture fit in terms of commitment to the mission and values.

Employees feel engaged when they experience a sense of belonging, purpose, and empowerment. Nonprofit leaders should reflect on how they can cultivate those feelings across their organizations—from the board room to the break room to the front lines. By making engagement an ongoing, comprehensive focus and effort, nonprofits can develop the dedicated talent and leadership needed to make a transformative, long-term impact.

David M. Rottkamp David M. Rottkamp, CPA, is an Audit Partner and Nonprofit Practice Leader, at Grassi. David has over 36 years of experience providing audit and advisory services to the not-for-profit and health care industries. David focuses on organizations serving individuals with special needs, religious organizations, educational institutions, membership associations, social service providers, healthcare providers, foundations, and the arts and culture world. David’s technical knowledge allows... Read full bio

Categories: Advisory