Succession planning overview

What is succession planning?

Most organizations, including nonprofits, don’t address succession planning systematically. Because many nonprofits have less than 10 employees and face other organizational challenges, thinking about who the next executive director might be or what would happen if the director of finance suddenly left is not high on their priority list.

Most succession planning focuses on the executive director, but all succession plans should include key positions. Key positions are crucial for your organization’s operation and will be hard to replace because of skill, seniority, and/or experience.

Your organization relies on its staff to carry out its missions, provide services, and achieve its goals. Effective succession planning supports organizational stability and sustainability by ensuring an established process to meet staffing requirements. In addition, succession planning demonstrates to stakeholders such as clients, funders, employees, and volunteers that your organization is committed and able to provide excellent programs and services at all times, including during times of transition.

Whenever size and resources permit, a succession plan should involve nurturing and developing employees from within your organization. Employees who are perceived to have the skills, knowledge, qualities, experience, and desire can be prepared to fill specific, key positions. Succession plans generally include training and developing existing staff alongside external recruitment.

When considering succession planning candidates, identify individuals from all levels of the organization and diverse backgrounds including but not limited to race, ethnicity, culture, religion, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and education. This will allow you to lead by example within the sector and ensure your senior leadership reflects the communities you operate within and serve.

Increased diversity means connecting with a greater variety of people and accessing broader and deeper networks. Increased community engagement can result in important links with potential members, new employees, volunteers, donors, and supporters. This diversity can result in further reach, greater visibility, and a much broader base of support.

Hiring individuals from diverse backgrounds must be done on merit — you need a fair process to avoid tokenism. Visit our article on developing selection criteria for more information.

Who is responsible for succession planning?

The board and the executive director have pivotal roles to play in succession planning. The board handles succession planning for the executive director position. The executive director handles succession planning for other key positions in the organization. These will likely be developed with help from the management team with input from stakeholders. To ensure the process is fair and the succession plan considers different perspectives, ask for input from all key stakeholders.

Why is succession planning important?

Many small to medium-sized nonprofit organizations do not address succession planning strategically or systematically. Sometimes, the extent of a succession plan is that a manager or executive director has flagged which staff would be suitable for advancement, but no rigorous assessment has been done.

Good succession planning provides:

  • A means of ensuring your organization is prepared with a plan to support service continuity when the executive director, senior managers, or key people leave.
  • A continuous supply of qualified, motivated people — or a process to find them — who are prepared to take over when current senior staff or other key employees leave your organization.
  • A message to your employees that they are valuable.
  • A commitment to developing career paths for employees will facilitate your organization’s ability to recruit and retain top-performing employees and volunteers.
  • An external reputation as an employer that invests in its people and provides opportunities and support for advancement.

The absence of a succession plan can undermine your organization’s effectiveness and sustainability. Without a succession planning process, your organization may be unable to ensure its programs and services are sustained beyond the tenure of the individual(s) currently responsible for them.

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