By James D’Ambrosio

JamesProfile1TwitterReviewing the findings from my last post about The 2013 Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey, one statistic jumps out: 69 percent of nonprofits — more than 2/3 — said they do not have a formal succession plan for senior leadership. This shapes up to be a real problem as many baby boomers holding executive and key administrative positions are forecast to retire in the coming years. Should that happen in your agency, will you be ready? This is where a succession plan is invaluable.  

In brief, a succession plan provides a framework for replacing an executive director, key administrator or other employee crucial to an agency’s operations due to an unexpected departure, retirement or death. Usually it’s developed by the board of directors and the executive director/CEO who, should, theoretically, have a good grasp of major issues facing an agency and key operational tasks.     


The HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector, an agency based in Canada, defines succession planning as follows:

“A succession plan, simply put, is a component of good HR planning and management. Succession planning acknowledges that staff will not be with an organization indefinitely and it provides a plan and process for addressing the changes that will occur when they leave. Most succession planning focuses on the most senior manager — the executive director; however, all key positions should be included in the plan…positions that are crucial for the operations of your organization and, because of skill, seniority and/or experience, will be hard to replace.”


If you’re looking to create a plan, think about areas in your agency that may be vulnerable to an unexpected departure and how it might be dealt with. For our purposes here, let’s say your executive director suddenly announces he/she is leaving on short notice to take another position. Here’s some issues you would face:

♦ How do we go about finding a qualified replacement?

♦ Who will conduct the search — board, staff, both?

♦ Is there anyone currently on staff qualified to step in?

♦ Should we contract with an executive search firm to identify candidates?

♦ Should we hire an interim ED until the position is filled?

♦ Can the position remain vacant for a few months with minimal impact to the organization?

♦ Have we formally documented key ideas, skills and organizational knowledge/history that only the executive director has? (Having this for the successor provides continuity, saves time, flattens the learning curve, and will certainly be appreciated.)

Having a plan in place makes a situation like the above much easier to deal with, i.e., not having to feverishly pursue solutions at the worst possible time when people are under stress. If you’re interested in developing a plan, the resources below will help you get started.


Click here for books on succession planning from Amazon

Resources from The Foundation Center

A publication from the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Resources from The National Council of Nonprofits


Does your agency have a written succession plan? If not, are you inclined to create one?

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