Next in Line

Your association’s success relies on volunteer succession.

By Eric Jacobson

FRM 005 Case Study

Establishing and executing a volunteer succession strategy is a daunting, yet necessary responsibility faced by leaders of nonprofit organizations. Poor transition planning for the board and key committees can result in stagnation, disruption and failure for the association. Therefore, it is essential that an organization’s volunteer succession plan factors in multiple contingencies to ensure that the organization has the volunteers needed to move and achieve its long-term goals and mission. A thoughtful approach to succession planning allows future administrations to further the work of its predecessors.

A strategic succession plan involves creating a framework that accounts for the what-ifs and life-changing events that affect volunteers. It also entails creating a pipeline of volunteers, and ensuring those volunteers are the right fit and prepared for their future duties. Once established, the succession plan should grow and evolve with the organization. Following are some tips from organizations that have achieved volunteer succession success.

The Framework for Volunteer Succession

An effective volunteer succession plan starts with goals and a clear vision. What do you want the plan to achieve? What processes are required? What roles does the plan encompass and who are the decision makers?

For Community of Experts of Dassault Systèmes Solutions (COE), the board is proactive in its approach to volunteer succession, says Executive Director Bret Kelsey.

“The best time to create a succession plan is when things are going well and you have good people in place,” says Kelsey, a 27-year veteran of association management.

For COE, the focus is on finding the right volunteers to serve on the board. Committee chairs or task force heads are often tapped, but Kelsey cautions the decision-making should be thoughtful. Not all committee chairs are in strategic roles, because some committees require more hands-on, tactical work. In general, though, committee leaders are a great source of potential board talent. And the pipeline for committee leadership should be a focus of the organization’s overall succession plan.

“The best time to create a succession plan is when things are going well and you have good people in place.”

-Bret Kelsey, Executive Director, Community of Experts of Dassault Systèmes Solutions

Another important part of the process is clearly identifying—and communicating—the roles, responsibilities and expectations for each of the leadership positions. COE reports annually to its membership regarding the board succession plans as well as what the board roles entail. The report achieves two goals: transparency about board activities and recruitment for future leadership service.

Other criteria detailed in the plan should include length of service for both board members and officers. Kelsey suggests that boards turn over every four to six years, which would mean two- or three-year terms for individual board members. The board member would then either get in the leadership queue to become an officer or move off the board. Again, there may be individuals who move up more quickly based on need or other circumstances, but this is a basic structure for successful organizations.

Kelsey also recommends having one-year terms for officer positions, but no more than two-year terms. So, if there are three officer positions, and a volunteer eventually serves in each role, this would require another three or four years on the board. In all, you would be asking for a seven- to 10-year commitment from volunteers who serve on the board and move into leadership roles. That’s not including any time spent on committees or task forces. For many associations, this structure effectively identifies and grooms new volunteer leaders while maintaining continuity from one board to the next.

The board should also set aside time for self-assessment to think about board composition in light of the association’s overall strategic plan. Which skills, competencies or representation might the board need going forward to advance the mission and meet strategic goals? More importantly, what is currently missing on the board—such as representation, skills or thought leadership? “You want critical thinkers, but you also want a diversity of opinion. Not people that just ‘think like us.’ You don’t want to slow the organization from growing and innovating,” Kelsey says.

Finally, Kelsey notes that the association should have a rigorous process for identifying and recruiting the right volunteer leaders. This process should run through a Nominating Committee or Leadership Management Committee tasked with finding, recruiting, vetting and assigning volunteers to positions that put them on the right track to become leaders.

Creating a Pipeline

Once a succession plan is in place, long-term success is dependent on developing a pipeline of volunteers. More than a decade ago, the Society of Gastroenterology Nurses and Associates, Inc. (SGNA)—an 8,000-member professional association of nurses and associates dedicated to the safe and effective practice of gastroenterology and endoscopy nursing—faced a volunteer drought. In response, its board launched a robust volunteer engagement effort designed to increase loyalty among its members, improve retention and produce an always-ready pipeline of next-generation volunteers. Today, after years of refinement, SGNA has found itself in the enviable position of having a healthy reserve of ready-to-serve volunteers for its leadership positions within its board, committees and various task forces.

SGNA’s systematic, annual process accomplishes the following:

  • Identifies volunteer needs
  • Clearly communicates expectations
  • Provides mentorship and development opportunities
  • Evaluates performance
  • Elevates promising volunteers into positions of increased responsibility, from volunteer to association president

For the call-to-action, a multipronged approach is a best practice. Putting out a call through association meetings and events, in-house—or industry—publications, the website and social media sites is an effective way to reach great candidates. But active recruiting must also be a part of the strategy. Some associations even appoint talent councils, whose sole charge it is to find the right people to serve on boards, committees or advisory councils. These talent councils can also be used to mentor future board members. And no matter what tactics are employed, it’s not enough to have one conference call a year to brainstorm potential candidates. It needs to be a year-round process.

“Remember to thank your committed volunteers—often,” says SGNA Executive Director Kim Eskew. “Our volunteers deserve to feel appreciated and valued.”

As you create a pipeline of volunteer candidates, Eskew recommends considering a variety of sources. Volunteers can step forward themselves, be nominated by someone else, be recommended by a board member, suggested by staff or be sought out by a nominating committee. Regardless, a vetting process should be conducted to discover which candidates have leadership potential.

The people who embody these qualities should be assigned to positions where they can gain leadership experience and visibility within the association. That might mean assigning them to lead a task force or work group, or appointing them to chair a committee. In these roles, they can hone and demonstrate their leadership skills, while also giving the organization a chance to see how they perform.

“Rather than recruiting each year on a one-off basis, we create a talent lineup that we can tap at any time,” Eskew says. “You want to have a pipeline of people in your industry or profession who are interested, eligible and capable of serving.”

Ensuring the Right Fit

The process to build that pipeline needs to be year-round, which is the case for the Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP), an organization that provides access to education, experience and resources targeting the needs of financial services and insurance meeting professionals. “Research proves that most people don’t volunteer unless they’re asked—so it behooves the board or the committee members to have conversations throughout the year to identify potential new board members and educate them about the process,” says FICP Executive Director Steve Bova. “Identifying and recruiting people to serve is a year-long sport.”

Keep in mind that the complexity and speed of life today makes it more difficult for people to give the time—or make it a priority—to serve on a board. “It’s a pretty big commitment that requires a lot of responsibility,” says Bova. “It’s not just showing up at a few meetings. It’s about being engaged, serving and doing what is right for the organization.”

Considering that fact, Bova recommends a proactive approach. The most successful organizations seek out the most talented board members, rather than just letting candidates come to them. It’s important to keep in mind great candidates are usually more than willing to serve if approached. “In many cases, people who seem reluctant to volunteer eagerly do so if asked,” says Bova.

In addition, it’s vital for people to understand the roles they are being offered and the expectations that come with it before making the commitment to serve. FICP uses a simple handout called “Before You Say Yes,” which is a checklist to determine if the candidate understands what’s required. For example, it asks if they fully appreciate the time commitment needed and understand the fiduciary obligations of serving. Also, it asks if they have the support of their employer, and if there are any conflicts of interest.

Further, FICP has a resource it gives to potential board members that outlines the benefits of serving. For the individual, it’s an opportunity to grow personally and professionally, as well as affect change, give back, and be more involved as an industry leader. It also notes that serving will provide good visibility for the board member’s company.

Finally, Bova notes that creating a valuable and beneficial volunteer experience might make volunteer leaders want to stick around indefinitely. However, if the same volunteers keep cycling through, it creates a perception that the organization group is a clique, which can be an unintentional threat to any succession process. A vital step in a good succession plan is ensuring volunteers understand when it is time to step down gracefully and let others step in.

Even with all these best practices in place, an association’s volunteer recruitment efforts must be flexible so they can evolve as the organization and its industry or profession. Ultimately, these efforts are the key to ensuring the organization has a lasting and valuable impact.

What to Look for in Future Leaders

Set the bar high in your search for future volunteer leaders. The best leadership candidates should exhibit not only the requisite experience and knowledge, but also the skills to enhance your organization. If you see members exhibiting these skills, jump in and ask them to volunteer!

  • Are they strategic thinkers?
  • Do they possess good judgment?
  • Are they consensus builders?
  • Do they value learning?
  • Do they have the time to commit?
  • Are they politically savvy?
  • Have they served in past volunteer leadership roles?
  • Do they have high ethical standards?
  • Do they inspire others?
  • Are they prepared to serve as stewards and ambassadors for the organization?
  • Do they bring diversity to the board in representation, skills or thinking?

Donate Your Time. Thinking about volunteering? Go to to learn more.

About the Author

Eric Jacobson is the Director of Corporate Communications at SmithBucklin.

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