Succession planning for the executive director

In many smaller organizations, succession planning may be viewed as a luxury, but it isn’t. At the very least, boards of directors have a responsibility to consider and plan for the departure of the executive director, who is often critical to the existence and sustainability of your organization.

When considering or facing the loss of an executive director, these kinds of questions quickly surface:

  • Should we hire from within or look for an external candidate?
  • Do we have anyone internally who is qualified?
  • Whether we hire internally or externally, does anyone know the specifics of what the departing employee was doing?
  • What impact will this change have on our capacity to deliver on our mandate and our relationships with our clients, donors, and volunteers?
  • What do we tell our stakeholders?

For more information on these questions, check out our recruitment and job analysis sections.

In some instances, the board may decide that there needs to be a “second in command” who can replace the executive director in the future and perhaps act as a backup during vacations, sickness, etc. This means:

  • Identifying that person in collaboration with the executive director.
  • Ensuring that the person is motivated to take on the top job.
  • Developing a plan to ensure that the eventual successor gains the requisite skills and knowledge to take the job on.
  • Ensuring the second in command has a broad range of experiences to understand your organization’s operations better.

The plan could include a formalized process of mentoring or coaching and training in more specific aspects of the job. When the size of your organization permits, it would be preferable to have more than one person identified as a potential successor to the executive director.

In a small nonprofit, it may not be possible to groom a successor from within the ranks of existing staff.

To ensure continuity and stability when an executive director leaves, pair employees to cross-train each other to ensure two people on staff know each job.

The board chair should have a conversation with the executive director on an annual basis regarding their career aspirations. While the executive director is not required to share any career goals, the conversation can allow for a frank discussion about their future.

What to do if your executive director leaves and you don’t have a succession plan

First and foremost, the board is responsible for drawing up a plan of action and effectively communicating it to the rest of the staff as soon as possible. This is necessary to demonstrate that the board is taking decisive action to deal with any assumptions that a quick departure may generate and ensure that all employees’ questions are answered.

The board must also communicate its plan of action for replacing the executive director promptly with its funders. Funders will need to be assured that plans and programs are on target and deliverables will not change.

With no succession plan or second in command identified, the board may want to name an interim executive director until a replacement is selected for the succession plan. This choice should be made wisely because someone with the right skills and knowledge needs to be chosen.

If a person is asked to take on the executive director’s responsibilities in addition to their job, there should be an adjustment in that employee’s compensation to reflect the additional duties and workload.

Another option is to ask a qualified group of two or three employees to co-manage your organization by sharing the executive director’s responsibilities. For this approach to be effective, it requires a clear understanding of the various aspects of the executive director’s position so that tasks are assigned to the right individuals. It also requires ongoing communication and coordination between the employees that are part of the co-management team.

If no employees are able or willing to take on the task on an interim basis, a board member may be asked to assume these functions temporarily. But, the board member will have to resign from the board if they take on a paid position with your organization.

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