Succession Planning Series Part III: Best Practices & Resources

Afraid we’re now coming to the end of our succession planning journey. In the first post, we addressed typical mistakes  organizations make when beginning succession endeavors. In the second post we briefly addressed legal issues you’ll want to be aware of regardless of what stage of succession planning you’re in. In this post, I’ll provide a few best practices and solutions as well as some resources to get you along the way.


Organization is the Key

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. Succession planning truly starts far before it actually needs to be put into place. Consequently, before you find yourself in the throws of an ED or staff loss you’ll want to make sure all your ducks are in a row by:

  • Creating a “briefing handbook” for the organization. Include archive materials detailing the organizations history, a summary of how the organization came to be, job descriptions, financials, the organizations values as well as a calendar detailing important events that take place each month. You’ll find this very similar to what you’d do for a new board member, but here the focus will primarily be operational.
  • Taking the time to audit staff members (and perhaps volunteers). What does their day encompass? What integral roles do they have? What duties do they perform that don’t overlap with anyone else in the organization? The importance of doing this is two-fold. One is that having a through understanding of what someone does will allow for easier replacement.  But more importantly, it’s almost always the case that the development officer or office manager handles something not traditional for their role. You’ll want to ensure that this duty/obligation/role doesn’t get dropped if someone  leaves.
  • Making sure succession planning is on the board’s radar and agenda; perhaps some type of ad hoc committee could even be created.
  • Getting an emergency plan together. What if someone doesn’t leave permanently but goes on sabbatical? Determine who in the organization might be able to fill in the open position until the previous individual gets back. If it’s a highly public role then it will also be important to get a press “schpeel” together. What reasoning do you want to give the donors/public for the leave and what assurances do you want to make?  Who is going to deliver this message?


Dealing With The Egos

The running joke with my boyfriend is he can tell me a certain shirt doesn’t look complimentary on me and what I hear in turn is that he thinks I look like Quasimodo and he doesn’t love me anymore. Similarly, the moment someone like a founder hears mention of a succession plan they may be likely to  go on the defense. Why is the organization trying to run them out? What have they done wrong? Doesn’t everyone know that they would be nothing without them?!

The easiest way to address this is frank conversation. But frank doesn’t have to equal confrontational. If you find people becoming upset about the prospect of a succession plan being created highlight:

  • That failing to address transition adequately can be the death knell for an organization. Not only does it mean attention is taken away from the mission, but when it inevitably does happen oversights could end up permanently stunting the organization.
  • Succession planning helps far more than it hinders. By putting a plan in place you ensure that all grounds are covered and take away dependence on individual staff members. That way, the survival of the organization doesn’t hinge on one person alone. Not to mention, in the process of auditing everyone’s role someone may discover they’re  doing entirely too much and can perhaps justify hiring someone else, or contracting out duties, by showing evidence of the inequity.
  • That succession planning isn’t just for when an individual is leaving. It’s meant to address emergency situations as well.
  • That this provides an opportunity for cross-training. When determining who should substitute for one another each staff member will have to be familiar with the roles and duties of other staff members. Which will allow for variety and additional skill-sets.


And recognize that the ego’s may not come solely from the person leaving. Staff members can grow tremendously close whilst in the trenches changing the world. So too can stakeholders (donors, funders, sponsors, etc.) grow close to the staff. So they’re  feelings and emotions about succession will need to be addressed as well.


Resources & Sustainability

Don’t forget that, much like any other action taken by the organization, resources will be needed to assist with putting a plan into place and keeping it there. Consequently, ensure:

  • That the board is fundraising for succession planning just as they would for any other important operational issue.
  •  Where you can’t afford to cover a role with permanent staff contractors, interns, volunteers and board members are utilized.
  • Succession planning is treated like any other policy; organically. Annual audits must be done to ensure that what someone was doing last year is still what they’re  doing this year. Have new projects been added? Then there may be additional roles that will need to be taken into account.


So that’s it! I hope you’ve found the series helpful. To assist with implementing a plan, here are resources I think are great:


Articles and White-papers

  1. Succession Planning For Non-profits of All Sizes
  2. Succession Planning: The Elephant In The Room
  3. Succession Planning For Non-profit Organizations: A Resource List
  4. Founder Transitions: Creating Good Endings And New Beginnings


  1. Non-profit Succession Plan Check-list
  2. Building Leaderful Organizations: Nonprofit Succession Planning


  1. Leadership and Development and Emergency Succession Plan
  2. Sample Succession Plan Policy and Plan from Texas Commission on the Arts
  3. Sample Emergency Succession Plan From The Nonprofit Succession Planning Workshop


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