The time to start planning for leadership succession… is NOW!

It’s unavoidable. Your nonprofit’s executive leader will leave sooner or later, maybe even sooner than you think. And yet, if your nonprofit is like most, a succession plan has not been discussed.

Fewer than 20% of nonprofits have a succession plan in place for their chief executive position, even though there’s a 100% chance the executive will leave the role eventually.

Too often considered an awkward or uncomfortable conversation, many choose to avoid the topic. While ignoring the subject leaves the organization ill-prepared when the inevitable happens, preparing for succession opens up a whole range of dialogues that lead to a stronger, more resilient organization.

This article addresses how to prepare for a smooth transition regardless of how or when your executive leaves.

Steer clear of two risky mindsets

There are two common but risky mindsets behind this lack of attention to leadership succession: the denial mindset and the replacement mindset.

The Denial Mindset

The denial mindset is kind of like that old joke about the leaky roof only needs to be fixed when it’s raining. While it may be tempting to put off to tomorrow what seems like an awkward if not difficult conversation, succession planning discussions can be some of the most sustaining conversations an executive can have.

It’s not just about getting an “insurance policy” in place. It’s also about looking at the leadership needs of the nonprofit and exploring how to make the organization more sustainable. That’s in addition to having a policy and a plan in place that ensures business continuity under unforeseen circumstances, as well as planned transitions.

The Replacement Mindset

Equally dangerous is the replacement mindset. Under this notion, the board assumes that they’ll simply hire a new executive when the time comes. No big deal. Easy peasy. They treat the transition like it’s only a hiring problem, and an ordinary one at that. They fail to recognize that turnover in the chief executive position is a big deal change for the organization. The executive’s influence extends to all corners of the organization and into the community. Not to mention the fact that nonprofits are communities, and turnover in leaders is a disruption in the organization’s social fabric. How the board handles that turnover can have major implications for employee morale, stakeholder investment, and funder commitment.

Make sure your organization is ready

So take the steps now to ensure that your organization is well prepared for the inevitable. Get a board-adopted succession policy in place for the chief executive position, as well as a backup plan. (Backup plans are also recommended for your entire management team.)

The succession policy spells out how the board will handle short-and long-term unexpected absences, as well as how they’ll handle the transition when the executive decides to leave or retire. The backup plan ensures that there is a cross-trained individual ready to step in on a temporary basis in case of an emergency. Often referred to as “succession essentials,” every nonprofit should have these two key management tools in place.

But that’s just the “insurance policy” component of succession planning. Like any good planning project, the real value isn’t necessarily just the plan. It’s also the fruits of the process – insights, understanding, and alignment.

The process can open up a dialogue about the organization’s future leadership needs and how to strengthen the management bench. It can help the board better understand the complexities of the chief executive’s role. In short, it can open up conversations about how to strengthen the health and vitality of the organization.

And it doesn’t have to take that much time. All that’s needed is a small planning team, some good tools and templates, and a few hours of time invested. Click here to download a free step-by-step guide.

So take that first step and start the conversation. With a succession plan in place, not only will the executive director and board members sleep better at night, but you will also generate new insights into how to ensure the sustainability of your nonprofit.


This article previously appeared in the “Nonprofit Agenda,” published by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, an association of nonprofits for the Washington, DC region and the Commonwealth of Virginia. © Don Tebbe, 2018-19.