What would happen to your nonprofit organization if a key employee—including the executive director—were to disappear?When most people think about succession planning, large for-profit corporations come to mind. Yet, ultimately succession planning isn’t limited to the executives waiting to pull their golden parachutes. Many nonprofits are now beginning to recognize the need for succession planning, due in large part to the upcoming mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce. A recent survey of 1,900 nonprofit leaders revealed that 75 percent planned on retiring within the next five years.

At the most basic level, succession planning is a solid risk management practice. Creating one involves compiling data, files, processes and action plans in order to prepare an organization for the departure of important employees. These plans help ensure the viability and efficiency of an agency in the absence of an executive director. Additionally, succession plans allow nonprofit organizations to become more nimble and autonomous to a certain degree by providing an action plan and offering the skills and capacity to meet whatever challenge may arise. The end result boosts staff morale, board confidence and overall reassurance in the face of adversity.

If your nonprofit organization hasn’t yet addressed the topic of succession planning, perhaps now is the time. We’ve gathered some of the top tips for getting started…

First, decide what kind or kinds of succession planning your organization needs. According to Tim Wolfred of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, there are three key kinds of succession planning in the nonprofit space: Strategic leader development, emergency succession and departure-defined succession planning:

  • Strategic leader development is an ongoing practice based on defining an agency’s strategic vision, identifying the leadership and managerial skills necessary to carry out that vision, and recruiting and maintaining talented individuals who have or who can develop those skills.
  • Emergency succession (or leadership) planning ensures that key leadership and administrative functions, as well as agency services, can continue without disruption in the event of an unplanned, temporary absence of an administrator.
  • Departure-defined succession planning is recommended when a long-term leader has announced his or her departure date two or more years in advance. It includes identifying the agency’s goals going forward; determining which tools a successor will need to have in his or her skill set to achieve those goals; and devoting significant attention to building the capacity of the board, managers and systems to sustain funding and programs beyond the current executive’s tenure.

Then, meet as an executive team or with board guidance to compile the data and information necessary to put a succession plan in place:

  • Identify critical positions: Develop a list of positions, volunteer and paid, who could disrupt the execution of a strategic plan and its components by their departure.
  • Develop an inventory of skill sets required for each key position: Cover current skills and seize the opportunity to aim high or make changes based on your organization’s vision.
  • Identify existing staff or volunteers who could step up to replace a vacancy, either on a temporary or long-term basis and define what a transition would entail and what an ideal timeline for this to take place would be.
  • Document information necessary for a successor and store in a central but secure location, like a binder or document carrier;
    • Board of directors information, including a list of directors, meeting schedule, past minutes, orientation binders, etc.
    • Staff information, including names, job descriptions, personnel policies, reporting relationships, appraisals, salaries and staff meeting information.
    • Organizational details, including history, press clippings, policies, organization chart, by-laws, 990s and the annual budget, strategic plans, business plans, manuals, key suppliers, official documents, etc.
    • Comprehensive status and operating details regarding the key business lines or member services, including major events like contracts, contacts, project scopes and timelines, publications, advocacy, etc.

Once this information is compiled, work to develop a plan. For in-depth guidance on what a nonprofit succession plan should include, consult with your local council for nonprofits or peruse resources offered by GuideStar, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, CompassPoint or others.

The last piece, of course, is all about communication—you’ll want the board to be informed of such plans and processes, as well as staff involved with human resources or hiring. Some nonprofits choose to communicate plans to all employees. However far you wish to spread the news of the plan, do so purposefully and carefully.

Consider starting with a review of your organization’s strategic plan. Reenergize the focus by handing out takeaways, like coffee mugs or tote bags imprinted or embroidered with strategic goals. Then, present the succession plan by leading with an explanation of why it’s important to have one in place and stressing that no one is leaving any time soon (if that’s the case). Close by asking for input, questions and suggestions—anonymous comment boxes work well.

Succession planning is a necessary part of any business and a great tool for nonprofits. It encourages sustainability, nurtures employee morale and all in all positions your organization for success. Get started today!

Wolfred, Tim. “Building Leaderful Organizations: Succession Planning for Nonprofits.” AECF.org. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.

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