NextGen Series: This is the second article of five in our new series focused on the next generation of leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the firstthird, fourth and fifth articles. There is also a corresponding webinar for new & aspiring leaders – please click here for information and to register.

Board members and senior leaders, we need to talk. This article series is about the next generation of leaders but before I start helping them to step up, we need to create the terrain for them to want to and be able to become a senior leader. As I mentioned in the previous article Mind the Leadership Gap, we are headed toward a substantial challenge in nonprofit leadership very soon. Not only do we have a mass exodus of senior leaders coming fast, our next generation of leaders may not exist. Too many staff are indicating a lack of interest in moving up to lead nonprofit organizations. I get it, you are busy and you are focused on just getting through the day a lot of the time. However, nobody wants to become the driver of a runaway train or one that has no engine to move forward at all. So, it’s time to think about getting things in order in our organizations for now and for the future. And to do that, you need to future proof.

What is future proofing?

Future proofing is a relatively new term for organizational development. It was coined in the world of software. Software development now occurs at such a pace that companies need to look months and years ahead to plan for when the needs of the customer change and build in adaptability so the software can be adjusted quickly. Otherwise, the company will have to start all over again and build a new software every single time there is a change.

This state of continual change describes where we are at in the nonprofit sector beautifully. We are also moving at such a fast pace that it’s hard to catch our breath, let alone plan for the future. But if we are to make the social change stated in our vision and mission statements, we must plan ahead so that we can be also be agile in making needed changes within our organizations. That starts with leadership.

In my own consulting work I talk about future proofing with a comparison to the story of The Three Little Pigs. If you are paying no attention to developing leadership in your organization, you are building a house of hay. It can be blown over easily by a change in senior leadership and your services will suffer. If you have paid some attention to succession and you have someone in mind for taking over when your ED/CEO leaves, you are building a house of sticks. It’s a little bit stronger but not enough to prevent the house going over if that person leaves or is not adequately prepared. What you want to build is a house of bricks. You want to create a solid foundation that holds steady no matter what happens at the senior leadership level. And that means building a distributed or shared leadership approach within your organization.

How to future proof your organization

Get the board on board

Nonprofit leadership starts with the board. It’s not only the board’s responsibility to ensure the organization is on track with a good strategic plan, it has to take risk management seriously. And, because often our board members are from other sectors, they may not be aware of the risk that is coming with regard to leadership. You need to help them become more aware of the importance of getting ready for the future. Here’s one of the best things about this ‘new’ concept: When we talk about ‘succession’, it often refers to the senior leaders’ job and it is a very awkward conversation for an ED/CEO to have with a board. It’s also risky. If the board thinks they don’t have your loyalty, they may be less inclined to listen and support you. Future proofing is a broader concept that is about the organization, not a single individual. This means no more awkward conversations about when you are leaving! The other reason it’s important to get the board behind taking on this work is because the organization is going to have to invest time and money in doing this well. This investment needs to be built into the budget and the ED/CEO’s operational plan.

Develop a roadmap

You already have your strategic plan (or should do!). Future proofing is not that. It may be part of it and I would say moving forward there should always be an area in the plan that focuses on this so that you are able to build in the time and resources to do it. But a roadmap is more of a practical guide for what you are going to do to future proof. It’s an overall picture with a detailed itinerary that is fully focused on leadership development in your organization. It’s the ‘what’ AND the ‘how’. When your roadmap is created, ensure that you have also built in an evaluation process that enables you to measure your progress. That way you can make pivots where and when needed to avoid the bumps in the road and keep you moving forward.

Equip your current leaders AND staff with leadership competencies

Historically, we have often sent our individual senior leaders off to expensive leadership development programs. That was important for their professional development but often our hope that the learning would be disseminated amongst other leaders didn’t happen or they weren’t able to put it into practice as they were the only ones that had learned it. Taking a ‘whole team’ approach to leadership development helps you to create the terrain for being able to practice and input what is being learned. For example, recently I delivered training for a staff team and a senior leadership team. We did the training separately so as to create a safe space for both to learn. However, they learned similar competencies such as coaching, storytelling, and how to have courageous conversations. This enabled the whole organization to communicate more effectively, and put what they had learned into action as they are all talking the same language and had a common understanding of what they wanted to achieve.

Create stretch opportunities

It’s important that we enable staff to be able to try out leadership both within their own work and within the organization itself. If we create a culture of allowing for learning and failure rather than micro-managing and over-emphasizing perfection, we are already doing well in enabling people to do their best work and take responsibility for it. However, even in small organizations we can create opportunities for staff to step up and lead others. We may just need to get a little creative about it. We can develop working or action groups that are focused on getting a particular event or piece of work done in a defined time period. Please note I did not use the word ‘committee’ and that was deliberate. Committees have notoriously been identified as talking shops where nothing gets decided or in some cases, done. Be careful about using the language as you may be putting savvy potential leaders off with the term. Also, if you are trying to give people the opportunity to lead, a committee where the goal is often consensus is not your best option. Consensus is a tough goal for a highly experienced leader, let alone a staff member that just wants to try out their newly learned leadership competencies. A limited time period also creates a sense of safety and conclusion that will be attractive to people who are not sure if they want to be a leader or not. You can also develop individual stretch opportunities that enable your staff to show their leadership stuff.

So, there you have it. Your recipe for future proofing success! And here’s the thing, the more you grow leadership within your organization, the more leaders we have in our sector. And that is how we will not only address the upcoming leadership gap, it’s how we will actually make the social change we are all working toward.

In the next three articles, we will be focusing on helping new and aspiring leaders to step up and step into leadership. We have also developed a webinar for this group. It’s a little different than the usual webinars from CharityVillage but we thought we would try it out. We’re doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with Lianne on June 13th. New and aspiring leaders can register here. Questions can also be sent in advance to Lianne at Join us!

Until next time,

Lianne Picot helps organizations develop their future proofing roadmaps AND put them into action through leadership development at all levels. Lianne also specializes in helping new & aspiring leaders to become INSPIRING leaders through specialized leadership coaching and training. Lianne has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years as a practitioner, Executive Director and CEO. She is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Connect with Lianne at to find out more about future proofing and how it can help your organization.