Succession planning process

Conduct a capacity and needs assessment

Identify key positions and individuals in your organization

Key individuals and positions include the executive director, senior management, staff members, and volunteers that would be hard to replace due to their skill or experience, capabilities, and/or requirements. Ask yourself which positions would need to be filled almost immediately to ensure your organization continues to function effectively.

Review and list your current and emerging needs

Examine your strategic and operational plans to articulate priorities clearly. Identify and list the gaps between positions, individuals, and needs. Ask questions such as:

  • Which individuals are slated to or likely to leave through retirement, project completion, or other reasons, and when?
  • Which new positions will be required to support the strategic plan?
  • Which positions have become or will become obsolete?
  • What skills and knowledge will need to be developed to match the strategic plan?

For more information, visit job analysis.

Evaluate all staff members and/or volunteers to match skills, knowledge, potential, and desire to existing and new positions

The evaluation can be formal or informal and can include performance reviews, 360-degree assessments, and informal conversations with the individuals under consideration.

The executive director may be aware that an employee is willing and able to be promoted. This may be an opportunity to recognize this goal and support it.

Be open to the possibility that those with lived experience and/or those with job experience who may have encountered barriers to access to education may still have the skills, knowledge, and expertise required to do the work.

Take this opportunity to give less experienced team members a chance. So often, those with less experience enthusiastically enter the nonprofit sector and then leave when they can’t find opportunities to advance. Address this turnover potential by matching their interests to opportunities provided through effective succession planning.

Succession planning transparency

There are many perspectives to consider when deciding whether or not to share your succession plans. Knowledge of succession plans can lead employees to feeling a sense of belonging and advancement — it can also lead to feelings of tension, competition, and frustration.

If you make your succession plan transparent, you have to be clear about how you conduct your evaluations. Use clear measures that demonstrate how you arrived at the plan, along with a description of the conditions under which the plan might change, including individual performance factors and environmental factors.

Decisions based on incomplete or biased information could lead to grudges and negative claims such as favouritism or nepotism.

Succession plan needs can change rapidly, leading to staff feeling cheated or misled if they are not informed of a change in plan. Therefore, the plan needs to be updated in real-time. Factors that can affect succession plans include:

  • Suitability can be subject to change. For example, an employee’s performance and/or behaviour could be great for a while and then start to decline, or vice versa.
  • Your organization could encounter a new need that isn’t captured in the successor's profile.
  • Your plan may find that no existing staff member has the skills or experience for a role.

Be prepared to address issues such as concerns of staff who have not been selected for career advancement. Ensure alternative paths are identified to allow all employees interested in career enhancement to be given some type of professional development opportunity.

Professional development can include such wide-ranging activities as formal education and training, workshops and seminars, and less formal learning opportunities such as the chance to represent the organization at a consultation.

Important: To avoid a potential constructive dismissal or other claims, include a statement to specify that a succession plan is not a guarantee of a position; rather, it represents a developmental plan to prepare an individual should opportunities arise within your organization.


If possible, move people into different areas for experience and training before they’re needed in critical positions. Have individuals job shadow for an agreed-upon time to give the successor a real sense of the responsibilities and to allow your organization the chance to determine whether the individual is well-suited for the new position.

Organizations that work on processes as a team are more familiar with each other's work and how the pieces all fit together. Succession planning can also mean crafting organizational structures that are more resilient to change and the movement of personnel.

Develop and implement the succession plan

Based on the evaluation and the requirements of your strategic plan:

  • Identify the individuals you want to develop.
  • Match the individuals to the available positions.
  • Establish timeframes to prepare them.
  • Formalize education, training, coaching, mentoring, and assessment activities.

The mix of activities included within the action plan should be linked to timelines and specific outcomes. The plan must be capable of adapting as individual and organizational needs change. It must also consider the particular needs, learning styles, and personalities of the individuals involved to be effective.

Monitor and manage the succession plan

As people leave and new people assume their responsibilities, the plan will have to be updated to identify the next person to be developed for promotion and the requirements of their action plan.

Succession planning tips

  • Understand that your succession plan will be a unique reflection of your organization. Succession plans are as different from each other as the organizations for which they are developed.
  • Secure senior management and board support for a succession planning process. This gives employees an understanding of how important succession planning is to your organization.
  • Work with current employees to develop procedure manuals for essential tasks carried out by key positions. Include step-by-step guidelines.
  • Review and update your succession plan regularly. This ensures you reassess your hiring needs and determine where the employees identified in the succession plan are in their development.
  • Provide adequate time to prepare successors. The earlier they are identified, the easier it is on the individual to be advanced and on other employees within your organization who will know whether certain options are available to them.
  • Whenever possible, ensure an overlap of time so the exiting employee can help orient and train the new employee.

Succession planning challenges

  • The size of your organization: some nonprofits have so few positions that they may not have the ability to offer opportunities for advancement. As a result, employees with the potential and the desire to advance their careers may move to larger organizations.
  • A lack of financial resources: employees may leave for better salaries and benefits offered in other workplaces.
  • The nature of funding: as more and more organizations depend on project funding instead of core funding, there are fewer core staff members available to take up positions in the organizations.
  • Project staff that come and go and may not be seen to be part of the talent pool available to your organization.
  • Senior leaders that stay in their positions, even though the skills needed for the job may have changed, or they are no longer making meaningful or productive contributions to your organization.
  • Employees that are included in succession plans indiscriminately, including those who are disinterested, unmotivated, or lack the capacity to advance.
  • Inadequate training and development resulting in an employee who is not prepared for a promotion.
  • A plan that does not promote people in a timely fashion, leading potential successors to leave your organization to seek new opportunities.
  • Poor communication that results in confusion and turmoil within your organization as staff speculate about the succession plan.

When identifying an individual from a diverse background, please know that peers and other members of management could target them as being seen as a “token” hire. Please ensure that you have ample evidence to back your selection to avoid such experiences from occurring. If such allegations are made, please ensure that the employee being targeted is supported in an authentic and dignified manner.

Ideas for recruiting key positions

Look to your organization’s volunteers

There may be board members or volunteers in other positions within your organization with the talent, knowledge, and experience to effectively transition to a paid position.

Look to project staff

As a result of a shift from core funding to project-based funding, more and more project staff move from organization to organization with short contracts. These people will often have gained information about your organization’s operations and could move seamlessly into a core staff position.

Look to other nonprofit organizations

New employees are often found in other nonprofits. While some may view this as poaching, the reality is that employees who aren’t being challenged or aren’t happy will leave your organization for a better opportunity. In some cases, employees have been known to leave for a position in another organization but return years later with new experiences and skills.

Keeping exceptional employees in the sector by allowing them to move around to develop their careers ultimately benefits the sector’s capacity.

An innovative approach would be to develop a pool of candidates with other organizations and develop a rotational program to allow key employees to move from one organization to the next. This approach would ensure key individuals remain challenged and motivated while a group of nonprofits all benefit from the expertise.

Look to consultants

While most consultants may prefer to stay in their line of business, some would like to become staff members if asked. In some cases, consultants worked for a nonprofit before becoming a consultant and are interested in moving back into the sector to work.

For more information, visit choosing the right recruitment method.

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