Leadership Development and Succession

Sustainability tip

Nonprofits that are serious about their own sustainability will also be serious about planning for smooth and thoughtful leadership transitions. Planning for leadership transition should take into consideration not only planned transitions but also unplanned ones -- whether for staff or board leaders -- and sustainability also means cross-training staff so that important day-to-day functions will continue uninterrupted. Who is responsible for all this planning? The board development committee or "board governance" committee will generally focus on leadership succession at the board level, while staff is most often charged with identifying transition plans for staff leadership succession, whether planned or unexpected. However, because the board is ultimately responsible for oversight of the executive director, typically it is the board's role to initiate succession planning for the executive director.

Leadership transition planning includes:

  1. Gaining the commitment of board and staff to manage the transition intentionally. Don't forget board leadership as well as senior staff. Transitions at all levels can de-stabilize an organization.
  2. Identifying current challenges and those that lie ahead, and the corresponding leadership qualities that are needed to navigate these challenges successfully.
  3. Consideration of whether placing an interim leader at the helm is the right path for your nonprofit.
  4. Drafting a timeline for leadership successions that are planned.
  5. Creating an Emergency Leadership Transition Plan to address the timely delegation of duties and authority when there is an unexpected transition or interruption in leadership.
  6. Identifying leadership development opportunities for staff and board members to expand their leadership skills so that the organization will have a "deeper bench" of future leaders.
  7. Cross-training current staff to minimize the disruption from unexpected staffing changes.
  8. Making plans to adequately support newly placed employees, such as with coaching, mentoring, and defining goals.
  9. Communications planning: Identifying how your organization will communicate with stakeholders before, during, and after a transition of leadership.

Emergency Succession Planning

Every nonprofit needs a plan to deal with an unexpected event, such as the unexpected departure of key leaders. Self-help guidance for emergency succession planning is available in this resource on succession planning. (Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City)

Additional Resources

Grantmakers can play a critical role in helping nonprofits during a transition of  leadership. This article, Philanthropy’s Role in Succession Planning: How Funders Can Assist Grantee Organizations in Preparing for Leadership Change reports, using several case studies, how funders have assisted nonprofits with capacity building to prepare them for leadership succession and transition.

For more background on leadership development in the nonprofit sector, visit the Leadership section of the Council of Nonprofits' website

For resources specifically on board leadership, visit the Boards and Governance section
There are numerous suggestions for good books on Leadership in the Council of Nonprofits' online bookstore

"The domain of leaders is the future. The leader's unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. The most significant contribution leaders make is not simply to today's bottom line; it is to the long-term development of people and institutions so they can adapt, change, prosper, and grow." 

Source: The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes & Posner (2007)