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Why Every Foundation Board Needs An Executive Succession Plan
Kris Putnam-Walkerly -- Global Philanthropy Expert Kris Putnam-Walkerly -- Global Philanthropy Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Cleveland, OH
Wednesday, March 20, 2024


As board members of grantmaking foundations, one of your most critical responsibilities is ensuring the long-term sustainability and success of your organization. However, many boards of directors overlook the importance of proactive executive succession planning, leaving their foundations vulnerable to the potential disruptions caused by an unexpected leadership transition.

By investing in a comprehensive foundation succession plan, you can mitigate risks, seize opportunities, and position your foundation for continued impact and growth. Failing to plan is planning to fail – don’t let your foundation fall victim to leadership disruptions that could have been avoided.

The Compelling Case For Succession Planning: It’s In Your Best Interest

As volunteer board members generously donate their time and expertise, the last thing you want is to find yourselves overwhelmed by the havoc and stress caused by an unexpected executive departure. Without a comprehensive succession plan in place, you risk being engulfed in disruption and chaos that stretches far beyond the scope of your board duties. From damage control to crisis management, an unplanned transition can quickly consume your personal bandwidth and leave you grappling with issues you never signed up for. A proactive succession plan can:

  1. Ease The Burden On Board Leadership: Without a plan in place, an unexpected executive departure can place an overwhelming burden on the board chair and executive committee. They would be responsible for communicating the transition to stakeholders, identifying and training an interim CEO, and spearheading the search for a permanent replacement – tasks that can significantly strain a board member’s time and resources. This substantial workload diverts focus from the board’s strategic oversight role and core duties, potentially hampering the foundation’s ability to operate effectively during this critical period.
  2. Mitigate Financial And Legal Risks: As fiduciaries, board members bear the responsibility of protecting the foundation’s assets and ensuring compliance with legal requirements during a leadership transition. A well-crafted succession plan can help you navigate this period smoothly, minimizing the risk of financial mismanagement or legal violations. Without proper planning, the foundation risks potential penalties, lawsuits, or reputational damage stemming from lapses in regulatory compliance or financial oversight that fall through the cracks.
  3. Reduce Staff Turnover: Unexpected leadership changes often trigger a domino effect of staff departures, leading to costly recruitment efforts, decreased morale, and disruptions to critical projects. A succession plan can provide reassurance and continuity, encouraging key personnel to remain engaged during the transition. Retaining institutional knowledge and maintaining operational consistency can prove invaluable as the foundation navigates the leadership change.
  4. Maintain Board Stability: When boards find themselves entangled in a leadership crisis, members may start resigning, compounding the challenges faced by the organization. A proactive succession plan can prevent such turmoil, allowing the board to focus on guiding the foundation through the transition process. Board turnover during a leadership vacuum can further destabilize the organization, making a carefully crafted succession strategy all the more crucial.
  5. Protect Your Reputation: An unexpected or tumultuous leadership transition can undermine confidence among partners, grantees, and donors, potentially damaging the foundation’s reputation and jeopardizing its ability to secure future funding partnerships or effectively implement its programs. Perceptions of instability or mismanagement can have long-lasting consequences, highlighting the importance of a smooth, well-orchestrated succession process.
  6. Facilitate Seamless Knowledge Transfer: An ideal succession plan allows for an overlap between the outgoing and incoming executive, enabling the new leader to receive valuable training, establish relationships with key stakeholders, and gain insights from the historical knowledge of their predecessor. This crucial knowledge transfer ensures continuity and sets the stage for the new leader’s success, preventing a disruptive “reset” that could hinder the foundation’s progress.
  7. Control Costs: Reactive responses to unexpected departures are significantly more expensive than proactive planning. By investing in a succession plan, you can avoid the costs associated with interim leadership, staff turnover, executive searches, crisis communications, legal fees, and potential financial mismanagement. The investment in foundation succession planning pales in comparison to the substantial financial toll of a mishandled leadership transition.

Seize The Opportunities: Benefits Of Proactive Succession Planning

Beyond just crisis prevention, proactive succession planning unlocks a wealth of opportunities to strengthen your foundation’s leadership, strategy, and operations. This pivotal transition represents a catalyst for positive transformation, enabling you to envision an optimal future state, align resources, and position your organization for long-term success under a new executive. Embrace the following opportunities to maximize the impact of your foundation’s succession planning efforts:

  1. Craft A Compelling Vision: The succession planning process presents an opportunity to envision the foundation’s optimal future state and articulate the attributes and impact desired from the next executive leader, guiding the transition towards aspirational goals rather than merely transactional steps. This forward-looking mindset fosters strategic alignment and can reinvigorate the organization’s sense of purpose and direction.
  2. Identify The Ideal Leadership Profile: Carefully assess whether your foundation’s next phase requires a leader who will continue the current strategic framework or one who will chart a new direction – two distinct profiles that demand different skill sets and qualifications. This critical evaluation ensures alignment between the organization’s evolving needs and the capabilities of its future leader, mitigating the risk of a costly leadership mismatch.
  3. Solidify Your Legacy: Foundation succession planning allows board members and CEOs to reflect on their personal legacies and the lasting impact they wish to have on the foundation, its grantees, and the broader community. This introspection can inspire actions that manifest your desired legacy and shape the organization’s future trajectory. By being intentional about your legacy, you can leave a lasting imprint on the foundation’s mission and values.
  4. Strengthen Organizational Efficiency: Use the transition as a catalyst to address existing inefficiencies, streamline processes, and align the organization’s structure with its strategic goals, creating a more attractive environment for potential leadership candidates and facilitating a smoother handoff. This period of change presents a unique opportunity to implement long-overdue operational improvements and position the foundation for greater effectiveness under new leadership.
  5. Enhance Board Preparedness: Evaluate the board’s readiness to actively participate in the executive transition, clarify roles and responsibilities, consider implementing or revising term limits, and ensure effective onboarding processes for new trustees – all critical steps to maintaining a strong and engaged governing body. A cohesive, well-functioning board is essential to navigating the complexities of a leadership transition and supporting the new executive’s success.
  6. Realign Personnel And Resources: Review and potentially restructure the organizational chart, reassigning duties, exiting underperforming staff, or recruiting for key positions to ensure stability and support for the incoming executive leader. Similarly, this transition period presents an opportunity to gracefully exit board members who bring toxic energy or fail to contribute meaningfully. A fresh start under new leadership may necessitate recalibrating the team and resources to align with the foundation’s evolving priorities and needs.

By proactively investing in an executive succession plan, foundation boards can safeguard their organizations’ future, mitigate risks, seize opportunities for growth and improvement, and solidify their lasting legacies. Embrace this critical responsibility and position your foundation for continued success and impact in the years to come. The cost of inaction is simply too high – prioritize foundation succession planning to secure your organization’s path forward.

Ready to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of your foundation? Let’s discuss your executive succession plan today. Schedule a call with me to explore how we can tailor a comprehensive strategy to meet your foundation’s unique needs and goals.

Don’t wait for disruptions to dictate your foundation’s future. Take proactive steps towards success now. Click the button below to get started.

This article was originally written and published on Forbes.com.

About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

For over 20 years, top global philanthropies, UHNW donors, celebrity activists, foundations, wealth advisors, and Fortune 500 companies have sought Kris Putnam-Walkerly’s philanthropic advisory services to dramatically increase the clarity, speed, impact and joy of their giving. As a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert, speaker and award-winning author, she’s helped hundreds of foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts. Kris also contributes expert philanthropic commentary to the WSJ, Forbes, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Alliance Magazine, Variety, Thrive Global, Worth Magazine, NPR's Morning Report, and other media. Awards include being named "Philanthropy Advisor of the Year" in 2020 and 2021, "Most Dedicated Philanthropic Advisor" in 2021, one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers" three years in a row, and most recently was a finalist for the 2022 Family Wealth Report Awards for “Philanthropy Advice.” Kris is the author of Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving (Wiley, 2020) and Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders.

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Kris Putnam-Walkerly
Title: Global Philanthropy Expert
Group: Putnam Consulting Group, Inc.
Dateline: Westlake, OH United States
Main Phone: 800-598-2102
Cell Phone: 510-388-5231
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