The Long View: Succession Planning in Nonprofits


Across the nonprofit sector there is a resounding echo of organizations floundering in the wake of leadership succession. Like any good nonprofit, many of these organizations were spiritedly focused on their mission and day-to-day wins, not on the what-ifs of the future such as planning for the succession of their leader. The conversation of succession planning in nonprofits is repeatedly shuffled to the side in the ambitious drive of accomplishing the mission: that is until organizations are blindsided by an unexpected turnover or lack a change management plan to successfully assimilate a new leader into the organization. It would seem in most cases, succession planning becomes the most important issue in a nonprofit only after it is essentially too late. This cannot be the case.

Recognizing the importance of succession planning, many researchers have set out in attempt to explain what such a plan can do for organizational success, who is responsible for executing the plan and why, and how to create a succession plan uniquely fitted to a nonprofit’s needs. Not many have suggested that succession planning should be a required standard among nonprofit organizations. It is true, not many things are considered standard in the nonprofit sector but it can be argued that each nonprofit has a board of directors, articles, bylaws, a mission, and a founder and/or executive director. Why not add a succession plan to the list? In order to achieve true excellence a nonprofit must begin this plan at the very beginning of existence. It must be able to consider the present, the future, and beyond. Now think of your own organization. What can you do today to engage it succession planning?

Succession planning in any organization should be lead by its executives, and in the case of nonprofits, its board and CEO. Dr. Joseph Santora puts forth "A Call for Vigilance at the Top" for nonprofit leaders to take control of the succession planning crisis (2009). He makes the following recommendations for executive directors and board of directors of nonprofits:

Executive directors must:

  • Confront their limitations and mortality. Since executives have a good deal of control of budgets (sometimes significant amounts of money) and their underlings, they often view themselves as autonomous, indispensable, and even immortal. Executives need to recognize that the financial and political conditions fluctuate and they will step-down, retire, consider new employment offers, and may even die in office.
  • Place succession planning among the top three strategic importance of executive succession planning and executive transition.
  • Identify possible replacement, either insiders or outsiders. The selection of insiders/outsider comes with both strengths and weaknesses.

The Boards must:

  • Understand the importance of planning and selecting a successor.
  • Work cooperatively with incumbent executive directors on succession issues.
  • Ensure that new board appointees are educated about the importance of executive succession as a strategic imperative.
  • View executive succession as a top priority for the organization.
  • Be prepared to make the best possible choices when hiring a successor so that the organizational fit and the values of the successor are compatible with the organization.
  • Add knowledgeable business and other professionals to the boards.
  • Understand the social and political nature or executive succession in nonprofits. (2009)

Once these aspects are considered, boards and executive directors are primed and ready to be successful in intergrating succession planning into their organizational culture, providing for the future of the organization and mission.

Below are a few diagrams that outline the succession planning process and flow.


These diagrams point to the diverse aspects of nonprofit roles. In his book, Boards at Work: How Corporate Boards Create Competitive Advantage, Ram Charan suggests that the following roles for organizational leadership when it comes to succession planning, Boards: Participation and Oversight; CEOs: Evaluating, Informing, Recommending; HR Executive: Designing the Process; the rest of the organization: Do the legwork (1988, 181-187).

Each member of the organization plans a vital role in succession planning. No matter what level you are currently working at, you can be the one to start the movement of succession planning in your organization or work to improve its current process.

Here are a few links to get you started with your succession plan:

Until next time!

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