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Volunteer Succession Planning

Running a volunteer program is rewarding, but it's also hard work. Even great programs tend to have an annual retention rate below 70%, resulting in a constant stream of recruiting new team members to fill the gaps. 

That's where volunteer succession planning enters the equation.

Creating a smooth transition to new team members and leaders is not easy, but it's absolutely vital. Especially when replacing leadership positions, a volunteer leadership transition plan can go a long way toward minimizing barriers and hiccups.

This guide will cover the ins and outs of volunteer and nonprofit succession planning, from creating a plan to implementing that plan, integrating training protocols, and ensuring a smooth transition. Let's dive in.

Just the Basics: What Is the Guide to Volunteer Succession Planning?

Succession planning for volunteers focuses on creating a strategy designed to prepare for the inevitable. It ensures that as volunteers and volunteer leaders leave, you have a plan in place to create a smooth transition while minimizing any negative impacts on the program as a whole.

Most likely, that means putting together a standardized procedure for replacing volunteers as needed at every level of the organization. If, for example, a team leader has left, the plan might call for a member of the team to replace them. If a member of the team leaves, the plan might focus on recruiting a new volunteer.

The Importance of Consistency When Building Your Volunteer Succession Plan

Volunteer succession planning matters because it builds consistency and minimizes the harmful effects of the inevitable volunteer turnover. Everyone involved will already know the next steps that need to be taken, ensuring that no harm will come to the volunteer program as a whole.

In addition, succession planning can also create a more positive experience for all of your volunteers. A standardized plan for promotions, for instance, can minimize ill will from any volunteers who in a less structured environment might have expected to be next in line. The plan takes care of variables that might distract your volunteers from the fulfilling work that should define their experience.

4 Steps to Effective Succession Planning for Volunteer Programs

Succession planning for volunteers requires a few core prerequisites that everyone involved should embrace, including:

  • Transparency, with everyone in the program knowing or at least having access to the plan.
  • Open lines of communication, minimizing confusion or frustration if a volunteer leaves.
  • Cross-organizational involvement increases a sense of ownership for the plan among your volunteers.
  • Technology where needed, like the ability to easily perform background checks or integrate succession planning into your training program.

Keep these prerequisites in mind as you take the four steps to effective succession planning today.

1. Create a Plan for Promotion Into Volunteer Leadership

Leading members of your team leaving the program have the potential to create the biggest ripple effects throughout the organization. As a result, your succession plan should include a standard procedure for replacing your volunteer leaders. Consider including these potential items:

  • Creating an understudy for each leader who can learn from them on the job and replace them, should they leave.
  • Creating standard criteria for who that understudy could be from the group of volunteers, should they need to be replaced themselves.
  • Creating a volunteer training module specifically for the skills needed to succeed in the leadership role.
  • Establishing the standard steps needed to start the leadership role, like additional background checks needed.

Note very great volunteer also makes a great leader. These steps, especially the training component, can help to ensure that if a leader leaves, you have the right replacement waiting in the wings.

2. Integrate Training Into Your Succession Planning Toolkit 

Speaking of training: volunteer succession planning is impossible without integrating your training modules. Your digital training curriculum should include a variety of standard modules for new and current volunteers, including:

  • The core tenets of your organization and volunteer program
  • Development of basic skills your volunteers can use to succeed
  • Optional modules with advanced skills for volunteers interested in leadership roles

Especially as most training has moved online, these optional modules have become increasingly attractive to volunteers. The more opportunities you offer for them to qualify themselves for advanced roles, the more options you'll have when having to replace departing leaders.

3. Build a Standard Recruitment Plan for New Volunteers

Replacing leaders should be central to any succession planning, but it's not the only component. As volunteers ascend into leadership positions, you'll also need the plan to replace their own vacated positions.

Effective volunteer recruitment is essential to growing your volunteer program. Based on the steps below, you can recruit volunteers not only for current openings but also with the skills in mind that might qualify them for a future leadership role. It also means connecting your recruitment and onboarding efforts with training not just for their current role, but any future roles they might occupy.

4. Keep Existing Volunteers Engaged to Minimize Turnover

Finally, don't underestimate the importance of an effective volunteer engagement strategy in your volunteer succession planning. Keeping your volunteers engaged means fewer of them will leave, reducing the need for replacements.

You can increase your volunteer engagement through steps like:

  1. Keeping open lines of communication.
  2. Involving volunteers in planning the activities they can partake in.
  3. Offer optional training that doesn't just cover the basics but helps them develop.
  4. Host team-building activities to build tighter bonds between volunteers.
  5. Encourage feedback and implement relevant suggestions to improve your program over time.

Use This Nonprofit Succession Planning Checklist to Grow Your Volunteer Program

The above four steps can help you build a plan designed to minimize disruptions. As you work through them, use this succession planning checklist to stay on track:

  • Outline the standard qualifications your volunteer leaders need
  • Identify an understudy for every leadership role
  • Identify the skills most important to succeed in your leadership roles
  • Create optional training modules to cover those leadership skills
  • Create a recruitment plan to replace promoted volunteers and grow your program
  • Create introductory training for new volunteers joining the organization
  • Align your succession planning with your volunteer engagement strategy
  • Gather input from volunteers on ideal succession planning
  • Formalize your succession plan in a single document
  • Share your succession planning documentation with your volunteers
  • Periodically evaluate your succession plan to adjust and improve as needed

It's a complex process, but one that--once implemented--will be well worth the effort. With a successful succession plan in place, you'll be well-prepared to keep your program running smoothly even in the event of inevitable departures by anyone from your leaders to other members of the team. 

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