We originally published this article in late 2019 but thought it relevant to re-share. We updated data for 2022.

If your top executive were to step down tomorrow, would your not-for-profit know how to make a smooth leadership transition or would your boat suddenly be rudderless? According to the Leading with Intent Study by BoardSource, only 34% of non-profits currently have developed succession plans.  Most non-profits, therefore, face an uncertain future — one that could include lost funding, program disruption, and even an early demise.

Fortunately, creating a succession plan isn’t as difficult as you might think. An experienced advisor can guide you through the process. But there are several points for you and your board to keep in mind as you establish policies for replacing leaders.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Ideally, any succession will be planned and allow for time to identify and recruit a successor and move that person into the job. If you don’t already, start developing employees who can move up the ladder when an executive director or other senior manager leaves. It’s important to ensure your board members are on the same page.

However, promoting from within can be difficult for some organizations, particularly smaller ones with limited “bench strength.” What’s more, your non-profit may require an executive director who’s already experienced in running a non-profit or comes with specific skills. So you can’t rule out hiring an outsider.

Indeed, don’t assume that your next executive needs to be as similar as possible to the outgoing one. Your non-profit and its constituencies may change over time. Succession planning provides a great opportunity to reevaluate your strategies and identify new qualities that will be important going forward.

Another thing to keep in mind: Not all successions are planned. A sudden departure due to illness or death can be particularly challenging for the staff and other stakeholders left behind. Outline policies for communicating with donors, clients, and the press if a leadership emergency arises, as well as steps your board should take to put in place a temporary leader and find a permanent replacement.

Start With a Strong Organization

Your succession plan will only be as effective as the organization that makes it. Among other things, you need a functional board, dependable funding sources, well-run programs, and a dedicated staff that can handle change. Solid systems and well-documented procedures can help you leverage organizational knowledge and keep your non-profit running smoothly during leadership transitions. Contact us for help planning for succession and to strengthen your current operations.

© 2019

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