NFP Success(ion) Planning: Pipelines and Pathways

NFP Volunteering – Part 1

Identifying future leaders and supporting their development is a key dimension of ‘resource management’ in the ‘For-Purpose’ sector.

‘Talent Pipelines’ and ‘Pathways to Directorship’ are often referred to in the succession planning literature, alongside the expectation that a board skills matrix (or director competency framework) should be used to select your next candidate for directorship when a vacancy occurs.

Most non-profits depend heavily on their volunteer workforce – both for governance and operational support. Relatively few have the resources or cachet to attract and retain independent directors (e.g. with finance, legal, or IT skills) to serve on their boards.

If this sounds like a description of your association or charity, then talent spotting and nurturing must be built into your volunteer coordination systems. Provision of mentoring, training, and other skill development measures, will prepare your future leaders so they can step up when needed.

I suspect the term ‘talent pipeline’ implies a somewhat unrealistic single route to leadership roles. Like a conveyor belt, once on it, you aren’t getting off until the end! Consequently, I prefer ‘pathways’ as a better analogy, reflecting the multiple engagement avenues experienced by volunteers, as illustrated in the chart below.

Of course, in reality, not all paths lead to directorship. Many volunteers are happy to contribute for one activity, or for a period of time, but not to seek governance responsibilities. Your future directors will most likely be a small subset of your total volunteer cohort and ‘community of interest’.

In corporate entities it is common for 70-80% of expenses to be staffing related. In many non-profits, more than 80% of ‘the work’ is undertaken by volunteers contributing on a pro bono basis. Making good use of your volunteer workforce is therefore a key success factor in achieving your strategic and operational goals.

While skills matrices and competency frameworks are useful, that use should not be left until a board vacancy arises, in the expectation that you can headhunt a suitable candidate at the time. Some non-profits may have the resources to attract and retain ‘external’ candidates, but my experience suggests that most NFP directors are drawn from within the community of interest which the organisation serves. Consequently, it is important to build leadership capacity and cultivate talent within your members and/or volunteers.

With most volunteers juggling full-time work and family responsibilities, the time and energy they can contribute, are limited. Whenever you see an opportunity to ask a volunteer to take on coordination roles, and to step up from being a ‘helper’, be prepared to provide training and support to ensure they can ease into their greater responsibility.

Cultivating future leaders and directors is a long term process, much like gardening. You don’t harvest a crop ‘on demand’. You choose the right season, sow seeds, water, nurture, prune, weed, deal with predatory threats, and optimise the growing environment, knowing that your harvest will come at the end of the process.

Taking your future leaders from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ will not happen effectively without training, development and support (e.g. mentoring). While equipping your volunteer workforce to perform specific roles and functions, it would be wise to also keep an eye on their development of leadership and directorial skills. This will ensure that your systems offer pathways to more senior roles. It will also help you to avoid the stress and anxiety that can occur when you have to fill a ‘sudden’ vacancy on your board.

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