None of Us is Getting Out Alive: A Guide to Executive Succession Planning

The work you do now to plan for executive succession could mean the difference between whether your organization withers or thrives later.

None of Us is Getting Out Alive: A Guide to Executive Succession Planning
10 mins read

No one wants to think about succession planning, but you should.

Pre-pandemic, nonprofit executive leadership was in the midst of a succession crisis: a 2011 survey of 1,200 nonprofit leaders noted that 67 percent of nonprofit executives planned to step down by 2016. Despite this intent, a later 2016 survey indicated that 59 percent still lacked a formal succession plan.

Of course, the pandemic did not ameliorate this problem. The so-called Great Resignation has extended into the nonprofit world, with pandemic burnout and aging Baby Boomer leadership leading many nonprofit executives and staff alike to call it quits, even though the exact numbers remain somewhat murky.

Regardless of the precise percentage of resigned and resigning nonprofit leaders, talk of succession planning often still sparks anxiety in board members. They begin to worry: Is she planning on leaving?

On the other hand, executive directors might also be concerned: What if board members decide they want to move ahead before I’m ready?

But fear not! Done well, succession planning should allow for the following: the transformation of transitions into a more thoughtful process; the expansion of leadership development’s culture and practice to ensure inclusion and diversity; the safeguard and operationalization of institutional knowledge; and the management of potentially charged transitions.

Remember—a succession plan does not equal an executive search. A succession plan takes a long-term and comprehensive approach to provide structure for continuity. As the ED, you are responsible for creating this plan, although the board will be involved and will ultimately be responsible for approving the plan.

On the other hand, your board would undertake an executive search only once you inform them of your plans to resign. For the most part, this executive search would not involve the ED. It can be a piece of the succession plan, but it is just a piece, and the succession plan should be in place long before an executive search ever occurs.

There are three main steps to a successful succession plan I would recommend for most small to medium sized community nonprofits:

1. Appoint a succession plan committee.

Responsible Party: Board Chair, supported by ED

A committee of board members will review all documents, discuss the parts of the plan, and present it to the full board. This committee can help in developing or refining the ED job description. Remember, they aren’t replacing you—they’re filling a position that needs specific skills. The committee can also survey stakeholders to help get a community view on the organization and its leadership. They also need to be sure that whatever type of planning process you use—for example a strategic plan—is relatively current.

2. Gather the physical pieces of the plan.

Responsible Party: ED

As ED, this is your job. The physical pieces of the plan include:

ED Job Description

Again, this should be taken from the succession plan committee and should include all necessary skills specific to your organization. The ED job description should be a realistic document that accounts for all you do. It will vary from organization to organization.

The ED job description is not the document that you will be advertising with; instead, it involves simply listing what you are currently responsible for. Your board can decide how that may change with a successor.

Emergency Succession Plan (the old “hit by the bus” plan)

The emergency succession plan consists of a document and information inventory, communication plan, and designated survivor. Let’s take a look at an example of each aspect.

The document and information inventory includes:

  • Contact information for all employees
  • Chart of all bank and brokerage accounts
  • Location of all legal documents (bylaws, incorporation papers, tax letters)
  • Location of donor lists
  • Current calendar year outline with due dates of recurring grants and financial filings
  • List of significant stakeholders (community, association, and funder groups)
  • A process for adding users to an account or safely transferring computer and software login and password information

The communication plan includes:

  • Immediate point person should something happen
  • Person who will serve as liaison between board and staff
  • Individual who is the contact for media (reporters)
  • Contact person for donors/funders
  • Person who is the contact for staff questions
  • Everyone who has received physical copies of the plan

The designated survivor is the person (or persons) on the board who keep physical copies of the plan.

Once created, the Emergency Succession Plan will serve as the basis for your General Succession Plan.

3. Create a timeline for a planned transition.

There are many opinions on how far in advance the ED should give the board notice. Depending on your organization and its budget, six months should work as a comfortable timeframe. This allows the board some time to ensure that all of the documents are up to date, allows for you as the ED to assist in the planning, and ideally gives some overlap with the new ED.

Once you’ve given notice to your board, your role consists of:

  • Identifying leaders within (or outside) the organization who may be possible candidates
  • Preparing your management team to be instrumental in onboarding the new ED. For this preparation, consider the following questions:
    • Who will arrange meetings with key stakeholders?
    • Who will review upcoming grant/report deadlines?
    • How will the new ED understand the workings of the organization? Will this include job shadowing or interviewing?
    • What historical information is important to know?
    • Who is responsible for quotidian minutiae, e.g., handling or delegating office maintenance
  • Helping decide what (if any) your role will be once the new ED steps in. Your role might take the form of trusted advisor, on-call resource, onboarding support, and/or task-specific work (like grant writing or data analysis). However, you might also choose to completely step back and have no role once the new ED takes over. Ultimately, the decision on what contractual relationship the former ED will have with the nonprofit is up to your board.

As an additional resource, see Executive Transition Timeline.

I can already hear some of you now with questions and concerns.

Q: This is a time-consuming process. I’m so busy putting out fires I don’t have time for this.

Yep. I get it. But let me respond with an anecdote: in late 2019, my Clinical Manager and I went to an all-day workshop to develop a “Disaster Preparedness Plan.” This was not our first choice of how to spend our day, but we walked out with a plan, ready to file it on the shelf. Three months later, our Disaster Preparedness Plan became our COVID Plan, which subsequently became our Emergency Succession Plan.

The work you put into this now is not only useful for succession, but also for beginning to think about who in your organization might be able to step up with more training. It’s also useful for looking at re-working models of service that you’ve had forever as well as being creative with how you might further your mission within a different framework.

Q: I don’t have any internal candidates that I can recommend as a successor.

Many organizations don’t. Nonprofits are often so stretched that there is not an ED-in-waiting. But this gives you an opportunity to identify the core skills needed in the position and to work on developing some of those skills in staff long before you’re ready to leave. Staff development can be a more formalized process, or it can involve shifting some job responsibilities to see what other skills staff members already possess.

In our own clinic, a fairly new front office staff quickly rose to the position of Office Manager because she had been given additional responsibilities and had done exceptionally well. We had no idea of her skill level through her regular job duties but when given more opportunities, she excelled.

Consider your own organization. Who might be underutilized?

Think About Your Legacy Now and Plan Accordingly

One day, by circumstance or by choice, you will walk out the door. The work you do now to plan for your inevitable exit could mean the difference between whether your organization withers or thrives.

I’m reminded of the story of Amy Krouse Rosenthal who was determined to find her husband a wife when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” was an incredible act of devotion that ensured that her beloved husband would not be lonely after she died. That was one heck of a succession plan.

For me, I want my legacy to be that I paved the way for a stronger, more effective, and more responsive organization. I want my nonprofit to be one that can withstand transition, deliver exceptional service, and continue to be a vital part of our community. That’s why I created a succession plan, and I hope you will too.

Additional Resources

About the Author

Suzanne Hoban, MPH, is the founder and Executive Director of the Family Health Partnership Clinic in Crystal Lake, Illinois, which is celebrating 25 years of providing high quality care for the uninsured in McHenry County, Illinois. Suzanne is a former board member of the Illinois Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, serves as a board emeritus of the Community Foundation for McHenry County, and has presented at state and national conferences on a variety of diverse issues facing the nonprofit sector.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

3 thoughts on “None of Us is Getting Out Alive: A Guide to Executive Succession Planning

  1. This is an excellent lead in a critical conversation as the importance of succession planning cannot be over-emphasized. I was at an organization when the ED became terminally ill; our complete inability to respond prompted me to change my dissertation topic to focus on how to de-mystify succession planning. We are three years into our succession plan – the first year we focused on emergency succession and CEO transition. The second year we added in succession plans for senior management. The third year is a simple review and update to make sure our emergency plan stays up to date. Each year, the updated version is shared with the senior management team and Board of Directors. If interested, my disseration work is available to view/download at no-cost here:

  2. Perhaps succession is a taboo topic – one of those issues like making a will which we all know, on various levels, that needs attention but somehow slips down our priority list.
    I know an agency where the request from funders for an exit plan created quite an emotional adverse reaction. That’s because the agency believed it had been battling for survival for several years and didn’t want to face even the possibility of closing down.
    Maybe those who less impacted in a direct or financial manner could take the lead here.
    This is a very useful article and I hope it spurs others to summon the courage to face some potentially painful realities. Somehow, we have to turn it into a topic like insurance – we hope we won’t need it but if we do, we will be relieved that it’s there to help.

  3. I’m a one-person leadership “team” at my organization. There are no other staff members to develop. When I leave there will a vacancy to be filled from outside. I’m just starting to have a conversation with the board about a succession plan. It should be interesting 🙂

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