Guest Blog: Succession planning: a core responsibility for charity chairs

Every charity will find itself with gaps in its board at some point. Good succession planning can make this an opportunity rather than a crisis, and it’s part of a chair’s responsibilities to have this in place.
David Dunsire, Consultant in the Charities and Third Sector group at Lindsays, offers some simple advice for charities of all sizes on how to prepare for the future. 
A third (33%) of charities in Scotland recruit new trustees every year, according to a survey by charities regulator OSCR.

There are different ways to look at this statistic. It could be that these charities have dynamic succession plans, ensuring a steady flow of diverse talent coming onto their boards. Or it could mean they are continually fighting fires in terms of finding and retaining trustees – and perhaps, by extension, senior staff too.

What these latter charities - and in fact, all charities – need is strong succession planning and processes. As a chair, this is ultimately your responsibility. As with so many governance tasks, making it part of your ‘business as usual’ makes it easier to manage effectively.

Based on our own extensive experience of supporting charity boards and chairs, a wise and manageable approach to succession planning is to break it down into five key elements.


1 Get your board on board

Succession planning may ultimately be your responsibility, but you cannot do it single-handedly. Therefore, the first step we recommend is to get trustees and senior staff engaged with it.

Remind them (encouragingly) that ensuring your board is quorate is an essential part of your charity’s risk management, reputational management, governance and regulatory requirements. Good succession planning can also help to ensure your trustees reflect your communities.

You could also appeal to your trustees’ sense of self-preservation. With succession planning in place, they are less likely to be pressured to continue as trustees when they no longer have the appetite or time to do so.


2 Map where you are and where you want to go

Whether you chair a local sports club or a major national charity, it’s important to check your trustees’ skills are suited to dealing with your challenges, opportunities, strategy and context.

A skills audit doesn’t have to be a major undertaking: it could just be a chat or short questionnaire, depending on the size and nature of your charity and governance. You could use it to gauge if:

  • Your trustee mix meets any requirements in your governing document(s).
  • You need to fill skills gaps, perhaps arising from legislative or societal changes. For example, some charities have recently sought more safeguarding and / or GDPR expertise on their boards.
  • if trustee recruitment could help to open new doors, for example engaging with wider groups or attracting new income streams.


3 Make a recruitment plan

There are different aspects to this. Firstly, you should have a plan for replacing each one of your current trustees  - and yourself too. Secondly, you probably want a plan for extending your skills mix or diversity and gaining new ambassadors.

When doing this, it’s worth thinking about both people and processes. For example, are there people working with your charity (for example, a volunteer or service user) who could step up (with support) to be a trustee, and what processes will be most effective for recruiting people you may not yet know.


4 Think differently in your recruitment and succession processes

OSCR’s survey of charities in 2019 showed that 72% of charities find new trustees by word of mouth. This can be practical and cost-effective, but it can also mean forfeiting diversity. Your options for board recruitment could include:

  • advertising
  • professional networks and organisations
  • local volunteering organisations
  • social media
  • universities or colleges that run young trustee programmes
  • articles in local press

It’s worth talking to target audiences about which of these methods is most likely to catch their attention, and also worth noting that you may not have to follow the same recruitment and appointment processes for all your trustees.

One interesting fact that emerged from the recent appointment of former UK Chancellor George Osborne as the new chair of the British Museum was the variety of different mechanisms used for appointing their 25 trustees, with some appointed by the Prime Minister, some by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), some by the Queen, and others elected by the trustees themselves.

We’re not suggesting that every charity can have the Queen input into selecting their new chair or treasurer, rather that using a variety of processes could improve the diversity of your board. Check what your governance document requires and allows on this.


5 Good planning involves more than just recruitment

Recruitment is just the start of succession planning; it also needs to be matched with induction, training and leadership development. This applies especially, but not exclusively, if you want younger or more diverse trustees and leaders, and retain them (and other talent).

As well as general governance training for your whole board, individual trustees may benefit from specific training, coaching or mentoring. This could also help develop the succession plan for your own role as chair.


Succession planning is for life, not just for emergencies

Broken down into these different elements, succession planning begins to seem less like a plan for ‘one day’ and more like a key part of protecting your charity’s future, providing both continuity and renewal to your board.

Given these benefits, many charities choose to make succession planning part of their governance cycle – for example, scheduling regular skills audits, having yearly chats with trustees about their future intentions, perhaps having a board sub-committee to oversee all this. This positions them well to deal with both planned and unplanned succession, and also to avoid falling prey to Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”


Lindsays provides trustee training to charities of all sizes, and training can be tailored to suit your organisation’s governance and training needs, including your succession planning.