By Janine Vanderburg, President/CEO, Joining Vision and Action
What is the most important element of your nonprofit succession plan?
Having good systems in place. Yup, that’s it. You can have developed leaders around you, left your board the password list and list of key donors, but without documented systems in place, the organization will flounder when you leave.
Throughout my years of work with nonprofit organizations and social enterprises, I’ve found that few have documented systems in place. Often “how we do things” is lodged in the head and heart of the executive director and/ or a key fundraiser.
Why that happens is understandable. People are focused on growth, fundraising and meeting client needs—so stopping to take the time to write down the processes and systems that make all that good work happen never seems to be a priority.
Failure to define and document systems, however, places organizations at significant risk. Work becomes person-dependent (meaning that one and only one person only knows how to do the work) or the workload keeps growing and every time a new person is added to the mix, he or she reinvents the wheel. Either way, you are failing to capture how you do what you do so that it can be replicated if successful or reviewed and modified if ineffective, wasting time and energy at the expense of your mission.
At JVA, we learned a lot about systems from participating in an E-myth coaching program. And we highly recommend the book: The E-Myth Revisited.
While written for entrepreneurs of small and midsize businesses, the book is a readable and helpful resource for any manager in any sector who is struggling to find enough time to do everything on his or her list. Among the themes discussed, the book focuses on systems, why they are critical and how they can benefit you and your organization in the long run.
Here are so basics of documenting your systems
The following key elements should be captured as part of your systemization efforts.
- The purpose of the system. What is it that is accomplished by the system? For example, the purpose of your payroll system is to make sure that your employees receive their paychecks on time and in the right amounts. The work of the system should be aligned toward achievement of the purpose.
- The flow of work in the system. What are the steps that need to take place within the system? Document the activities required, in order, with a level of detail that will ensure that someone unfamiliar with the system can read and understand how to operate it if required.
- The party or parties responsible for the system. Who is accountable for the system? Assign responsible positions to discrete steps within the system and for the system as a whole. Make sure that each individual involved understands the system and the components for which he or she is responsible. This process will lay the groundwork for effective staff and volunteer management by defining clear performance expectations and accountability.
- Periodic review of the system. Organizations are not stagnant; systems must evolve to meet changing needs of the organization and to reflect enhancements that can increase the agency’s efficacy and efficiency. By including a documented process for reviewing and updating systems, organizations can allow for innovation and flexibility while maintaining integrity, consistency and accountability.
How to get started? Conduct a system inventory.
For a nonprofit with few documented systems, putting this process into place can feel overwhelming. Start slow, prioritize, delegate and tackle one thing at a time. Consider conducting a system inventory to create a master list of all the systems and processes either in place or needed to conduct the work of your organization. Keep adding to the list and documenting one system at a time.
Once systems are in place, develop a process to periodically review and reassess systems to make sure that they are still relevant, accurate and efficient in supporting the work of your agency. You’ll get there, your agency will be stronger for it, and you’ll be ready for succession—or vacation!