It’s Time to Get Serious about Succession Planning

10/12/2021 2:26 PM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

By Shailushi Ritchie, ACN member

Few phrases seem to strike fear into the hearts of nonprofit leaders and board members as much as “succession planning.”  It’s not that people don’t understand what it is or why it’s important, only that it’s uncomfortable to plan for someone’s eventual departure—like planning a funeral when someone is alive and well.  Although there is a growing understanding of the importance of end-of-life planning, it seems that succession planning in nonprofit organizations hasn’t caught on.

The State of the Sector

Planning for the departure of one leader and the hiring and establishment of a new leader is critical to an organization’s long-term success.  Compasspoint’s 2011 report on nonprofit leadership indicates that 67% of CEOs/ED plan to leave their jobs within five years, 10% anticipate leaving within one year, and 7% have already given notice.

Nonprofits also face hiring and retention challenges due to COVID-19.  Nonprofits are not exempt from the hiring and retention challenges faced by other employers in what is being called the “Great Resignation.”  Forbes reports that 69% of employees, regardless of sector or role, are disengaged from their work and almost half (48%) are actively looking for new work. For decades, nonprofit organizations have developed a culture that prioritizes mission above all else.  Coupled with low pay rates, expected overtime hours, and comparatively few benefits, employees in the nonprofit sector are finding ways to push back against working conditions or leaving their roles altogether.

Yet, Boardsource reports only 27% of nonprofit organizations have a succession plan in place.

Why is Succession Planning Important?

Succession planning is important because it creates a space for nonprofit board members and organizational leadership to assess and plan for potential staffing changes in the foreseeable future.  It is not only to plan for the departure of an executive director or the board chair but also board and staff leadership at lower levels.  When directors and managers of organizational functions and programs leave, their departure can create just as much instability as when an executive leaves.

Succession Planning as a Route to Employee Engagement

Succession planning can also help organizations understand the wants, needs, and issues faced by all staff.  This is important for attracting highly-qualified candidates and for retaining staff in their current roles.  If leadership doesn’t pay attention, the organization may find itself in the middle of its own “Great Resignation.”  To paraphrase Forbes Magazine, preventing a Great Resignation is about preventing a Great Discontent. 

Although more than 50% of respondents indicated they would like to hire an internal candidate for a leadership position, Bridgespan reports that internal candidates apply for leadership positions about 30% of the time but are often not hired because of concerns they do not have enough of the right experiences. Organizations can use their succession planning efforts to consider how to develop a pipeline of internal talent and what kinds of training, support, and benefits they can offer to retain current staff in anticipation of future transitions.  This also bolsters the organization’s long-term stability; staff are engaged, and the knowledge and expertise of existing leaders does not leave the organization when leadership transitions do occur.

Developing a Succession Plan

Developing a succession plan can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it.  A basic plan should include the following:

  • Key responsibilities.
  • Who will be responsible.
  • Information about timing and frequency.
  • Connections to other staff (supervisors and support).
  • Plan for recruitment and hiring a replacement.

A template from Clarity Transitions, one of Sevah Consulting’s trusted colleagues, is linked here. BoardEffect also has a succession planning checklist on its website, linked here.

Expanding your succession planning beyond leadership is not much harder.  It does require time and commitment to create professional development that meets the needs of current staff.  MissionBox provides a thoughtful approach for how nonprofits can incorporate professional development into succession planning, including:

  • Understand the connection between performance reviews and professional development.  Clear goals for staff performance can also highlight opportunities for training and new opportunities.
  • Focus on personality as much as skill.  Leadership is as much about personality as it is about skills and expertise.  This isn’t to say that an individual’s personality limits their leadership ability, but rather it is an important component of an individual’s fit with a certain job.
  • Identify opportunities for innovation.  Ask yourself if your organization encourages questions or does it encourage people to agree and move along?  Are people punished for getting involved in new projects or are they praised for new ideas?  Fast Company notes that many Google innovations—including Gmail, Google News, and Google Earth Outreach—resulted from encouraging employees to dedicate working hours to a “passion project.”

Succession planning might not be the most exciting aspect of nonprofit management, but it is rapidly becoming one of the most critical.  Given the challenges facing the sector, effective planning for staff transitions can make the difference between an organization that merely survives and one that truly thrives, both today and in the future.

Shailushi Ritchie, founder and CEO of Sevah Consulting in Chicago, helps nonprofit organizations address strategic and operational challenges. As an advocate, writer, and nonprofit professional, she has worked on a range of issues affecting women and girls—including domestic violence, reproductive health, rights, and justice, and media’s impact on girls’ self esteem—and the societal factors that contribute to those issues. Prior to moving back to Chicago in 2016, she ran media and legislative advocacy campaigns at the local and state level in California and was featured in San Francisco Magazine December 2015 “Women in Power” issue.


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