The Hidden Risks of Neglecting Succession Planning in Foundations


Delve into seven scenarios that illustrate the potential pitfalls foundations can face without robust succession planning.

In the world of philanthropy, solid leadership is a cornerstone for success. However, many foundations — be it private, family, corporate, or community-based — overlook one crucial aspect of leadership: succession planning. Here, I highlight seven scenarios demonstrating the range of problems that can ensue when foundations neglect this vital process.

1. The Leadership Vacuum:

In this private foundation, the CEO’s abrupt retirement created a sudden and unexpected void. Faced with the pressure to maintain operations and continue grant programs, the board hastily appointed a seemingly qualified candidate. However, over time, this decision revealed its true cost. While the new director was skilled in management, they lacked a thorough understanding of the foundation‘s mission and the unique challenges and opportunities within its philanthropic landscape. This led to ill-informed decisions, misdirected programs, and misallocated resources. Partnerships were strained, beneficiaries experienced unexpected disruption, and the foundation’s reputation suffered.

2. The Resistant-to-Change Board:

Board members play a crucial role in guiding a foundation’s direction. However, without term limits and a clear succession plan, board members of this foundation overstayed their welcome, leading to stagnation. Despite their declining active participation, they resisted the influx of new ideas and innovation, preferring the comfort of familiar methods and the prestige of their roles. The lack of fresh perspectives hampered the foundation’s ability to adapt to the changing philanthropic landscape, affecting its ability to maximize its impact.

3. The Misaligned Community Foundation:

In another instance, the executive director of a community foundation resigned without warning, leaving the board with a significant leadership gap. In the absence of a foundation succession plan, they turned to a prominent local businessman, hoping his reputation would maintain the organization’s standing. However, this new leader brought a profit-focused mindset that was fundamentally out of sync with the foundation’s community-oriented mission. The result was a gradual yet significant shift in the foundation’s projects and programs, veering away from grassroots initiatives and towards more high-profile, less community-relevant undertakings. Over time, the foundation’s work became increasingly disconnected from the needs of the community it had pledged to serve, undermining its effectiveness and credibility.

4. The Strategic Stagnation:

The sudden departure of a foundation’s founder can leave an organization in turmoil. In this scenario, a foundation that had been making significant strides in clean energy funding was left leaderless after its founder unexpectedly stepped down. With no successor groomed to carry forward the founder’s strategic initiatives, progress quickly stalled. Plans were postponed, projects lost momentum, and grantees were left in an uncertain lurch. The consequences were felt most acutely by the very communities and causes the foundation was designed to support.

5. The Legal Labyrinth:

Without a clear foundation succession plan, this family foundation faced an insidious risk: a drawn-out legal battle. Upon the unexpected death of the donor, multiple potential successors laid claim to the helm, leading to disputes over roles, authority, and control of the foundation’s direction. The result was a costly and time-consuming legal quagmire that sapped the foundation’s resources, both financial and human. This diversion of resources left significantly less for actual philanthropic activities and undermined the trust and morale within the foundation and family.

6. The Talent Drain Dilemma:

A foundation’s strength lies not just in its financial resources, but also its human capital. However, in the absence of a clear career progression path and foundation succession plan, a corporate foundation experienced a consistent exodus of high-potential staff members. These individuals, seeing no opportunities for advancement and little stability in leadership, chose to seek greener pastures. Over time, the organization’s capability and effectiveness weakened as institutional knowledge was lost, the workload increased for remaining staff, and the costs of hiring and training new staff mounted.

7. The Donor Deficit:

The transition of leadership in a public charity can be a delicate period, especially when it comes to maintaining the confidence of donors. In this case, a rocky transition following the departure of a charismatic leader caused several key donors to question the foundation’s future. Fearing instability and a potential shift in the foundation’s vision, they chose to withhold their usually significant donations. The resulting financial shortfall had severe implications, forcing the organization to scale back its programs and breaking its commitments to grantees and beneficiaries.

These scenarios underline the critical importance of sound succession planning in foundations. The process may seem complex, but foundation succession planning is much easier than you think! And the consequences of neglecting it can be disruptive and damaging.

Don’t gamble with your organization’s future. Equip yourself with the knowledge and strategies needed to build a robust foundation succession plan. Secure your foundation’s mission and ensure its long-term success by joining my upcoming workshop, designed exclusively for foundation CEOs and Trustees: “The Simplified Succession Plan.” Click the button below to secure your spot today!

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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