Every board of trustees needs to recognise the importance of succession planning and implement it in accordance with their foundation’s individual circumstances.
According to the Schweizer Stiftungsreport 2019, there were 13,961 charitable foundations with 69,490 board members at the end of 2018, 28 percent of whom were women. Almost 92 percent of board members were only members of one board of trustees. If ten percent of all board positions become vacant each year, that means around 7,000 board members need recruiting annually. The 50–70 age group is significantly over-represented on boards of trustees. Major efforts are required to fill vacancies in such a way that boards of trustees avoid over-representing the older demographic, increase the proportion of women and find new board members with the right skills – that goes without saying.
Electing new board members can take place in a number of different ways: through the founders or their legal successors, by co-optation, by third-party appointments or ex officio memberships. Boards can be assembled using one or a combination of these methods.
The statutes and regulations may have provisions regarding the number of members, their period in office, limits to the duration of time in office and age limits. These two last points have the advantage of avoiding difficult conversations about voluntarily stepping down. The downside is that capable and dedicated individuals are sometimes forced to leave.
Being able to identify with the charity’s purpose is a basic requirement for becoming a member of a board of trustees. However, this alone is often insufficient motivation to become part of a board. Being on the board of trustees for a large charity is associated with a certain amount of social prestige, and such charities often offer compensation that goes beyond simply covering expenses. These organisations find it significantly easier to recruit new board members than charities whose work goes unseen and that have less funding.
Here are some practical tips that can make succession planning for a board of trustees easier:
Regular surveys of board members on how long they intend to stay in office. It is often problematic if multiple (key) members leave at the same time. However, this can also enable a fresh start, both content-wise and in terms of the culture.
Regularly updating the requirements placed on board members in terms of their time and expertise.
Regularly drawing up lists of potential future board members.
Potentially putting together a permanent nomination committee that also considers appointments to other positions (chair, treasurer, etc.). In smaller organisations, this role could also be given to a single person.
If the founder or a third party is involved: discuss succession planning regularly.
If necessary and legally permissible, make changes to provisions in the statutes and regulations that impede succession planning.
Consider non-monetary measures that could increase the appeal of becoming a board member.
Depending on the situation, at least consider enlisting professional support for the recruitment process.
It doesn’t matter which tips you follow. What matters is recognising the importance of succession planning and taking action. It is not enough merely to follow these two rules, however: board members can only step down if they appoint a replacement themselves; and anyone who puts themselves forward too forcefully for a position should be treated with caution.