NLN15: Reflections on a Nonprofit Succession Planning Process with Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson - headshotWe have as our guest this episode of the Nonprofit Leaders Network Podcast, the Reverend Richard Johnson. Richard, who’s better known as Richard “Stonefingers” Johnson to fans of his gospel/folk/blues style of music, is the President and CEO of Christian Formation Ministries (CFM for short) based in New Albany, Indiana, and a volunteer chaplain at Henryville Correctional Facility.

The focus of our discussion is the area of succession planning; the impact of a change in leadership on a nonprofit and how leaders themselves can transition out of that leadership role.

Having been involved in prison ministry for over twenty years, the principal focus of Christian Formation Ministries actives is in two key programs – supporting and mentoring those transitioning from prison to free society and a mentoring program for the children of inmates.

Here are some of the main topics from our wide-ranging discussion:

Recognizing When It’s Time to Turn over the Reins

Being a leader is very intense, the sheer volume of things you have to do. A couple of years ago I became aware that in my 60’s I don’t have the same energy levels I used to. I realized that I wanted the organization to continue past my getting out or dying, so I began to think about what was the process to get someone into the big chair, and to go about finding them to take the organization forward.

Determining What to Look for in a Successor

I wanted someone younger, with energy and enthusiasm, and since we are a Christian ministry, they needed to have a strong relationship with the Lord and freedom in Christ. I was looking for someone who was a doer of the word, and someone who had, at least, a working understanding of the environment we work in and the people we work with, and someone who had their vision and could take it on from the foundation that has already been laid. I started planning at the time without knowing who the successor was going to be.

Creating a Transition Plan

We’ll start with a handover of day-to-day management, and then as the relationships develop between the new CEO and the people we work and collaborate with, then more and more of the leadership and vision will handover too. We are envisioning a one-to-two year process, but it could be under that. I will stay on as President for a period and then go on full time to the new things I am starting to do.

I think that’s important, too, in succession planning. It’s extremely helpful that the person who is handing over the reins of leadership has something else to go to. Because I couldn’t imagine just giving everything up and just sitting at home wondering, “Well, what do I do now?” That’s not how I’m wired, and I doubt if any leader is wired that way.

Recognizing that Long-Term Commitment will Result in Increased Outcomes

We are not a big organization, the numbers are small, but we have an 80% success rate, and we’re very strict about how we calculate that. The success rate for prisons is only 33%, and for jails only 20%. I’m very proud of our figures. We’re in that 80% range among people that complete our program. Among people that we spend at least a year with, about 65% of those people are succeeding.

We’re able to minister to the whole person, their functional needs, spiritual needs and emotional needs, and that’s what makes the difference, that and the commitment. It’s long-term. This is not a quick fix. When we mentor somebody, we’re talking about years quite possibly life-long.

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