Leadership changes at nonprofit organizations are expected, but too often no plan has been created. We know that so much can happen. The current leader’s spouse gets a job offer in another state. Their elderly parent suddenly needs around-the-clock care. The board finds out about an incident outside work, forcing the resignation of the current leader. Often, though, it is much less drastic. Maybe the current leader decides to take an extended vacation and realizes how much they need to record and delegate before they go.
In any of these situations, a succession plan provides guidance to the board and staff on how to keep the organization running smoothly. In addition, the plan helps develop future leadership for the organization at all levels to smooth transitions when they do occur. Succession planning needs to look at the board, board officers, and key staff positions in addition to the executive director.
To develop a comprehensive succession plan, the board and executive director will need to put together some key documents, as I detail below. In addition, and just as importantly, they need to deeply discuss succession and what it means for the organization.
1. Emergency Succession Plan and Policy
- A board policy on succession, which covers various scenarios and the plan for each.
- An organization manual that includes a list of staff and board and their contact information, key organization contacts and partners, grant sources and contact information, bank account information and other financial information, passwords, and details on the executive director’s key roles and who could carry out those roles in an emergency.
- A crisis communication plan showing who will contact the above-referenced contacts in case of 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 key program manager or development director were to suddenly leave, is that position well-documented or would other staff be scrambling? 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. Leadership Development Plan
Once the organization is ready for emergencies, it can begin planning for long-term growth in its leaders. An intentional plan for developing leadership skills among staff, board, and volunteers will develop future leaders, empower staff now, and reduce the burden on the ED to do everything. I put together an in-depth look at leadership development planning.
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 the National Council of Nonprofits has a wealth of links and strategies to consider.
- Another great resource is Building Leaderful Organizations, which covers succession planning well.
- 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.
- In this article, I covered Departure-Defined Succession Planning in detail, for those organizations who are planning far in advance of a departure, often a retirement of a long-time leader.
If you have any questions about succession planning, please contact me. Having an outside perspective will ensure you include everything you need.