How to Plan and Execute an Emergency Succession

Succession planning gets a bad rap. But in a pandemic, especially in the early days, an emergency succession plan becomes essential to a nonprofit.

How to Plan and Execute an Emergency Succession
8 mins read

Do you have a succession plan if your nonprofit’s leader has an emergency?

COVID-19 has had most of us asking generative questions at some point. What is the real purpose of our organization? If we can only do one thing, what should it be? If our leaders become caregivers, sick themselves, or even die, how will the organization run?

Overall, succession planning gets a bad rap. But in a pandemic, especially in the early days when no one knew what to expect or how to manage, an emergency succession plan becomes essential.

As COVID-19 first struck, we shortened and pivoted our existing emergency succession templates for executive directors and staff leadership, and added a shortened operational checklist from our succession development work. This article takes you through the main components of a succession plan — temporary or permanent.

We hope to never use it.

An emergency succession plan is a plan we hope never to use but which can be useful if someone is suddenly unable to work. Emergency absences might be the result of an illness, accident, or when someone becomes an emergency caregiver.

(We like to say it’s when someone wins the lottery and moves to an island paradise. We know many nonprofit leaders, though, who might donate the winnings and come back to work!)

An unplanned absence can also be short- or long-term — and you may not initially know which it will be or the expected timing of a return.

An emergency succession plan appoints a specific acting successor or successors by role, defines their scope, designates their reporting lines, and identifies back-filled support. These plans are meant to be temporary, typically spanning one to three months. They provide a way to continue delivering mission during an emergency absence.

The plans also provide a cushion of time to make more thoughtful decisions on how to handle longer-term implications.

A template provides choices for your organization.

Our template, The Clarity Transitions Guide to Emergency Succession Planning, lays out the basic decisions in an editable format. We included line numbers to make easier discussion when planning. Common decision points specific to both the position and your organization are highlighted. This template is short enough that it can be completed in under two hours with board participation for the designation of an acting executive director, and staff participation for the designation of other acting positions.

This template is just a starting point; each organization is unique. If you have more of a traditional hierarchical structure, your plan may focus more on how to cover the position. If you have distributed leadership, your focus may be more on covering roles.

When designating an acting successor, you have some choices. Do you designate the full role to another person or do you split the responsibilities? There is no single right answer as it varies by organization and by the individuals involved.

If designating an individual:

  • Name a first and second acting successor, in case the first is not available. You may identify this either by name (e.g. Sonia Ortiz) or by position title (e.g. Director of Programs).
  • Identify to whom the acting successor will report. It need not be necessarily the supervisor for the full-time position.
  • Identify any limitations that an acting successor will have in their role. Often, we state this as “The Acting CFO will have the full responsibilities of the CFO position with the exceptions noted below. Exceptions noted here will require approval from …” and provide a bulleted list of exceptions. Exceptions might be lower limits on spending approval, an inability to change a budget, inability to fire staff, etc. If you do have limits on a position, identify who can override those limits.
  • Identify if any backup staffing or contingency actions will be implemented for the acting successor’s current position. This could be something like the hiring of a temporary administrator to help with mailings, or the postponement of mailings for the acting period.
  • Identify if an acting successor will receive any compensation. We often see organizations commit to the potential for bonuses being given upon satisfactory completion. Do not expect staff members to carry two full-time jobs without compensation.

Another option is to split the functions of the position among other staff members. We have used a table similar to the one offered below.

FunctionWhoReporting ToLimitations
ABC Program oversightName/TitleCEO 
Check signing & budgetingName/TitleCFOCFO to sign checks over $5,000

Control communications during a transition.

A communications plan can help identify who needs to be notified of changes and in what priority order. With a smart phone in every hand, communication is very fast. If there are gaps in a narrative, people tend to fill them in with their best guesses. Poor communication can quickly undermine the best plan, so having identified priority audiences is a great way to tackle this proactively. We have used tables like the example below for communications plans.

TierEntity (e.g. Staff, partners, funder)Communication


Person Responsible
1SupervisorPhone preferablePerson taking emergency leave or first person to notice the absence.
Designated acting successorPhone or in personSupervisor
Immediate reporting staffPhone or in person, email follow upSupervisor & acting successor together
2Key partners such as:

·  After school partners·  Enrichment teachers

PhoneActing successor
TutorsEmailActing successor
3Funders such as:

·  Government

·  Foundations
EmailActing successor & Supervisor together

“Who’s our internet provider?” and other questions you don’t want to ask last minute.

The final piece of the COVID-19 emergency succession plan is an operational checklist. The checklist documents key operating information needed to successfully pass responsibilities and roles to another person.

Operating checklists will vary according to each organization and to the role.  Larger organizations, due to their more formal structures and split responsibilities, are less at risk than smaller organizations in which leaders have been known to carry this information only in their heads. A checklist may include information such as:

  • Key contact information for vendors, partners, funders, or others with whom you regularly work
  • Staff, volunteer, or board rosters
  • Access to critical accounts with a link to separate and secured password storage
  • Calendar of key dates such as grant reporting and renewal, contract renewal, event preparation, board dates, and communication dates

We recommend a more complete checklist for succession development, and this can be a way to start that effort. Checklists do require regular update as the pieces change.

Anyone designated to be an acting successor needs to know that they have been so designated and, ideally, prepared to take over the most important things.

These acting designations can spur discussions on staff readiness and help identify skill and diversity gaps for development planning.

In the long run, we hope that this emergency succession plan can help you think about how thoughtful succession development can support your ongoing mission delivery. In the short run, we hope it helps you be prepared and that you never have to use it.

About the Author

Julia Burns is a partner in Clarity Transitions based in Jacksonville, FL. She has been a consultant to nonprofits for more than 15 years and focused on succession development and strategy. Julia has an MBA from The Stern School of Business at New York University. She co-chairs the Executive Transition & Leadership Continuity group within the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, is an alumna of Leadership Jacksonville, and is a Community Coach for the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida. Connect with Julia on LinkedIn.

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 “How to Plan and Execute an Emergency Succession

  1. In today’s highly competitive business environment, top performers have learned that achieving success requires a laser-like focus on what they want to accomplish and also check resume help for outsource of cv. As a management consultant and bestselling author David Maister. Thank you!

  2. I like that you talked about the importance of communication to identify who will be notified of the changes in the order of priority. I can imagine how vital that would be for business succession planning, especially when there are emergency situations you might have in the future. In my opinion, this can definitely help with ensuring that the company will be secure when the time comes that the owner has been in a situation where he or she can’t decide anymore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *