Ep. 6 – How the YWCA National Capital Area Developed and Used Succession Essentials

PodcastCoverArtIn this Lead. Learn. Thrive. podcast episode, Raffa’s Tom Adams talks with leaders from the YWCA National Capital Area (YWCA NCA): Tamara Smith, CEO; Artencia Hawkins-Bell, Board President; and Shana Heilbron, Chief Development Officer along with Melody Thomas, senior consultant at Raffa. Listen to their discussion about how the YWCA NCA decided to develop their Succession Essentials – consisting of a transition protocol (Succession Policy) and emergency protocol (Emergency Backup Plan), the process they went through with their staff and their board, the benefits they’ve seen and how the organization uses and updates these plans and documents.

Tamara SmithArtencia Hawkins BellShana HeilbronMelody Thomas





Podcast guests: Tamara Smith, Artencia Hawkins-Bell, Shana Heilbron and Melody Thomas

Succession Essentials for Boards and Executives: Lessons from YWCA National Capital Area

By Tamara Smith, Chief Executive Officer at YWCA National Capital Area and Melody Thomas, Senior Consultant at Raffa P.C.

The YWCA National Capital Area recently completed work on their Succession Essentials. What are Succession Essentials? Why are they important? Why should busy executives and board leaders take time to learn about them?

As the principal architects for stewarding the development of Succession Essentials for the YWCA NCA, we are eager to answer these questions because we both have seen first-hand how a simple, time-limited and easy-to-do process can take a chronic organizational sticking point and produce both predictable and unpredictable positive changes.

Board leaders, executives and funders all agree that planning for expected and unexpected leadership transitions is essential to keep effective organizations humming. Despite this agreement, survey after survey show that nonprofits do not have a written succession plan or policy. The 2015 Survey on Board of Directors of Nonprofit Organizations by the Stanford Graduate School of Business reported that 69 percent of responding nonprofits do not have a plan or policy. And for the 31 percent who have done it, they often use a fifteen-minute template adaptation process to satisfy a ‘check the box’ funder requirement.

What happens when a Board, executive and senior leadership staff really engage in basic succession planning? Here is what happened for the YWCA National Capital Area:

  • The Board stepped up and took more responsibility in planning for future leadership transitions at the Board and senior staff level;
  • Busy senior executives moved past their skepticism and saw the benefits of better defining their positions and key duties
  • Senior staff supported the cross-training that would be needed for others to fill in their absence and benefited from the cross-training they would need to fill others roles;
  • Senior executives became more clear on priority work and busy or non-essential work;
  • The CEO and Board got a broader look at all the top talent within organization and had conversations about how to continue to expand leadership now and in the future;
  • Detailed worksheets were completed by the CEO and each senior executive team member. (These came in handy very quickly as the CFO received an unexpected offer and departed. The worksheets gave the CEO, Board Chair and Board Treasurer critical information to guide the short-term interim staffing and inform how to approach filling the vacancy and continued business without disruption.)

The Board adopted a written Succession Policy and Emergency Backup Plan for CEO and senior executive team members and, as importantly, agreed to review and update these plans annually.

The process and developing the detailed work sheets is the key to understanding bench strength and appropriately engaging executive team and Board. The YWCA NCA could have done the Succession Essentials work ourselves, but we would not have learned as much and we would not have achieved the goal of moving the concern about future leadership from only the CEO’s job to everybody’s job, including the Board and the senior executive team. By going through this together, we worked through the fear of a hidden agenda that Tamara was leaving and eventually all embraced that this planning was critically important and something we will update and continue to use. Our Board was a little resistant to hiring consultants to get this done. Looking back, our past and current Board Chair and entire board are delighted we made the investment and think we got a terrific value.

For more information on succession essentials, listen to our podcast (above), read Succession Essentials for All Nonprofits: A Risk Management Best Practicevisit Raffa Succession Essentials or call Melody Thomas at 202-955-7242.

The Lead. Learn. Thrive podcast series grew out of our Raffa Learning Community effort and features interviews with interesting nonprofit and private sector leaders and those who help them Do More. If you would like to suggest a topic or a guest for an upcoming episode, please email jimena@raffa.com and include “podcast” in the email subject line.

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