Industry Expertise · July 23, 2020

Create a Strategy for Nonprofit Succession Planning

A change in leadership is challenging for any organization. It can be particularly difficult for nonprofits, where it's common for a few top employees to hold the lion's share of knowledge, skills and relationships. If they leave, it can put the whole operation at risk. Nonprofit succession planning is crucial to avoid these problems.

Building from the basics

In a nonprofit succession plan, the first step is to identify the most important roles that must be replaced effectively. This could include the executive director, members of the board and high-level staff positions like program coordinators and gift officers. You may want to consider the current turnover risk for each role so you can prioritize planning for those. For example, plan first for employees who are nearing retirement age.

For each role, make a list of what someone would need to handle the job properly. This could include the job expectations, key contacts, goals and an explanation for how the role interacts with other parties at the nonprofit. When you need to replace a staff member, you can use this information both to create a job post and to help onboard the new employee.

From there, start crafting a plan for how roles would transition in the future. Who'd be in charge of the job search? How long do you anticipate the search will take? Will the current staff member stay on to train their replacement? While real life might not go exactly as planned, thinking ahead will still make you more prepared.

Set a vision

Developing a nonprofit succession plan isn't a one-person job. For it to be successful, it needs buy-in from the other key stakeholders, because they'll also be responsible for executing the plan. 

Bring together a committee of these stakeholders. Include a representative from the board, the executive team and other leadership roles.Get their feedback on your succession plan and see whether they agree with how you described each role. 

Commit to knowledge sharing as well, so others can support a key new team member when they join. In particular, focus on how current employees will help this new hire develop relationships with donors, board members and the rest of team.

During these discussions, make sure you all agree on the vision and long-term goals of the nonprofit, so you can communicate these to new hires. By getting all key stakeholders on the same page for the succession plan, you'll avoid confusion when it comes time to replace an important role.

Plan for the unexpected

Ideally, whenever a key member of the nonprofit leaves, it's a planned departure, so you have time to find and train their replacement. But there will be times when people leave unexpectedly, such as for health reasons. Your nonprofit succession plan should also include preparations for an emergency transition.

Consider who would cover each important role during your hiring search. Could you fill these gaps with your current staff, or would you need to bring on an outside interim director temporarily for the role? Decide who would be supervising the interim position and how their responsibilities might differ from someone who was permanently filling the role.

The goal is to buy time to conduct your formal replacement search while minimizing disruptions from the surprise departure.

Tips to onboard new hires

As you develop your succession plan, lay out the necessary training for each role. Bear in mind that there may be an onboarding period of several months. Since these are leadership positions, consider how the board and other key stakeholders will encourage the new hire, so they gain confidence to eventually run your nonprofit.

To speed up onboarding and avoid these delays, it could help to promote from within. As part of your succession plan checklist, start identifying future leaders now so you can develop them to grow within your organization. This will help lead to a smoother transition, and it may also reduce turnover, as talented employees will see they have a future at the nonprofit.

Changes in leadership roles are never easy, but nonprofit succession planning can make them more manageable. With a plan in place, your nonprofit can continue serving its mission uninterrupted even after a key member departs.


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