Succes­sion plan­ning for boards of trustees

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. 
  • Publish vacan­cies on plat­forms like the job portal GGG Bene­vol (

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.

StiftungSchweiz is committed to enabling a modern philanthropy that unites and excites people and has maximum impact with minimal time and effort.

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