Nonprofit Succession Planning Best Practices

FEB 05, 2020

Only about 27% of surveyed nonprofits reported that they had a written succession plan in place, according to BoardSource.

Leadership and staff transitions in any organization are inevitable and many times can come unexpectedly. 

What can you be doing to make sure you are ready for staff and leadership departures?

Organizations that successfully navigate this process will typically engage in what I would refer to as nonprofit succession planning best practices.  

These 10 tips should be in consideration for all organizations looking to update or create their first succession plan. 

  1. Have commitment and involvement of the CEO and Board. Succession planning is not an HR-driven paperwork exercise; the CEO owns it and has regular reviews with the entire Board or a Board sub-committee. Board members contribute to the process by providing feedback, asking great questions, and holding the CEO accountable.
  2. Have regular talent reviews. The Board reviews talent with the CEO, the CEO reviews talent with the executive team, each executive team member reviews talent with their teams, and the process cascades down throughout the organization. A wide net is cast for rising stars and poor performers are dealt with.
  3. Only identify viable successors for a handful of key “C level” positions. They identify “pools” of high potentials for the top levels of the organization that can be developed for positions that may not even exist today.
  4. Take a “pipeline” approach to development, with the identification and development of talent at ALL levels of the organization.
  5. Hold the executive team accountable. They measure key activities and results and often tie them to executive compensation. 
  6. Align with business strategy. They “connect the dots.” More importantly, they can clearly articulate the business case for doing succession planning (or the consequences of not doing it).
  7. Manage the irrational, political, and emotional dynamics of succession. Ask anyone who’s ever been in the thick of a succession planning program, or talk to any CEO that’s faced with the prospect of “letting go.” It’s not for the faint of heart, and can’t be overlooked. This is the stuff that you won’t find in a textbook but comes with experience and emotional intelligence. 
  8. Assess performance and potential. They don’t gamble on past performance as a predictor of future success in a new role. That’s a high-risk bet. They use a variety of effective ways to assess potential with relevant, consistent criteria.
  9. Integrate succession planning with performance management, recruitment, selection, development, and rewards. It’s not some super-secret process done in isolation in a smoke-filled room. 
  10.  Make a serious commitment to development (time and resources). Succession planning without investing in development is nothing but a useless exercise in futility.