Succession Planning Readiness

Planning for an Executive Director transition or “succession planning” is an ongoing part of organizational development and sustainability in nonprofit organizations, but it is often not a top priority for nonprofit leaders. Succession planning is used to build strong leadership, assess current operations, prescribe activities for improving operations and sets the stage for a strong transition. To ensure effective succession planning, the partnership between the executive director and the board must be built on trust. In addition, nonprofit executives must be willing to share authority and assign leadership
roles to various staff otherwise the executive director’s departure could cause the organization to breakdown.

Nonprofits board members and staff must learn the importance of succession planning, key elements and how succession planning aligns with their organization’s current strategic issues. It is important that board members and staff review succession readiness checklist and determine the proper steps for developing a succession policy for their own organization.

What key elements of succession planning should be considered?

  • Focus on systems, not individual people. Key people might have information in their head. You must begin to routinely document information.
  • Succession planning is the Board of Director’s responsibility. The Board of Directors is accountable and must ensure that systems are in place to run smoothly in the event that the executive director leaves the organization. Board members may not do all the work, but ensure that it will get done.
  • The Executive Director has to have a succession plan for his own key employees. It is the Board of Directors responsibility that he creates one.

Why should we develop and adopt a succession policy?

Every organization should have a written succession policy. Why?

  • It provides a framework for important conversation and planning before leadership change happens.
  • It provides a structure and process to guide the organization when change occurs.

What should a written succession policy include?

  • What are the roles of the board, outgoing executive director, staff and in some cases external stakeholders in planning for hiring a new executive?
  • Is the organization committed to managing both the transition and the search by setting up a transition and
    search committee? What is the size and make up of the committee?
  • Will the staff be part of the committee? How will staff be involved in the process?
  • What is the committee’s authority to recommend one or more finalists and what is the board’s process for making
    the hiring decision?
  • What is the organization’s philosophy and practice in terms of filling key vacancies such as an executive director? Is there a culture of encouraging the development of leaders internally? Are there candidates encouraged to apply? Is there always an external search?
  • Will the organization consider using an outside consultant to assist with the transition planning and management
    and/or the executive search?
  • What is the organization’s commitment to diversity and cultural competency in its recruiting and selection process?

The policy document should be 1-2 pages and is developed, reviewed and adopted by the board. A small group of board
members and the executive director should draft the document.

(Sources: United Way’s Center for Nonprofits, TN; Following the Leader: A Guild for Planning Founding Director Transition. The Academy of Leadership and Governance 2001, Succession Planning Best Practices, Schoonover Associates.)

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