All nonprofit organizations need to think about succession planning. Anything can happen. The current leader’s spouse can get a job offer in another state. Their elderly parent can suddenly need around-the-clock care. The board finds out about an incident outside work, forcing the resignation of the current leader. Sometimes, though, it is much less drastic. Maybe the current leader decides to take a vacation and realizes how much they need to record and delegate before they go.
In any of these situations, a plan provides guidance to the board and staff on how to keep the organization running smoothly. In addition, the plan helps the organization focus on its mission long-term by encouraging open and honest conversations about the future of the organization.
Here are the two key documents that the board and executive director need to create:
1. An emergency succession plan, which includes:
- A list of staff and board and their contact information
- A list of key organization contacts and partners
- All grant sources and contact information
- Bank account information and other financial information
- A list of all organization passwords
- Details on the executive director’s key roles and who could carry out those roles in an emergency
A great resource for creating an Emergency Succession Plan is this Toolkit developed by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement. It includes a list of many documents that staff will need in case of the absence of the executive director.
When I developed the password and contact lists in preparation for leaving my executive director position, I was surprised to find it was an incredibly useful tool to have and wished I had done it much sooner. Even if you have no intention of leaving your position, it is valuable to take the time to organize the core information for your position, as you’ll make good use of it yourself.
In addition, be sure to look at positions beyond the executive director. If a core program manager or development director were to suddenly leave, is that person’s position well-documented or would other staff be scrambling to pick up the pieces? Asking each staff person to work on a plan will benefit the organization greatly in the long run, and no one person will feel threatened by the request. Anyone singled out to be asked for this information might worry that their job is in jeopardy.
2. A long-term succession plan, which includes:
- Who the named successor is (if any)
- The detailed process the board will put into place to hire a successor
- The plan for an interim executive director, if needed.
Putting these two documents together won’t be a quick process, but it will be very valuable to the long term health of the organization. Even if you think your executive director will be around for years, having these discussions will help everyone feel comfortable that the key information will be available when needed.
Here are some additional resources you may find helpful:
- The Federal Reserve of Kansas City has put together an excellent document on succession planning.
- This document from National Council of Nonprofits has a wealth of links and strategies to consider.
- A great resource for this process is a book titled The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide by Tom Adams. Adams covers the entire process of leadership transition in a comprehensive manner.
- I previously reviewed the book Who, which covers how to find strong candidates for leadership positions and conduct a meaningful interview process, and would be an excellent resource in this process.
If you’d like help with this process, please contact me. Having an outside perspective will ensure you don’t miss anything major that you should include.