Planning to Succeed: Defining an exit strategy for today’s nonprofits

What if your organization’s leader suddenly stepped down? How well prepared is your organization for the expected or unexpected departure of an executive team member? The National Council of Nonprofits cautions:  

“Leadership transitions can leave an organization vulnerable to environmental stresses, such as a loss of external funding because a long-time donor is taking a “wait and see” approach to the new leadership, or such as the loss of institutional knowledge when a long-tenured leader takes information with her about relationships or other expertise.” 

According to a study by BoardSource, only 27%  of nonprofits surveyed had a written succession plan. Whether you are facing the unforeseen exit of an executive or planning for the future, succession planning is vital to a nonprofit’s stability. When updated regularly, a written succession plan can help alleviate many woes and elevate clarity. The Third Sector Company stresses the importance of planning ahead and the additional sensitivities of the nonprofit landscape, emphasizing: 

  • Nonprofits should have a succession plan not just for staff but for volunteers as well.  
  • An organizational culture that fosters succession planning creates an environment that can welcome term limits and avoid nepotism. 

At Charities Review Council, we know many Board Chairs dread the idea of having to hire a new Executive Director. Having a succession plan in place can ease much of that trepidation. Are you ready to start a succession plan of your own? We recommend:  

Starting your plan with a plan. Developing a process that includes who should be engaged in the work, what should be discussed, and when items should be accomplished can make all the difference when building a succession plan. Ensure you check every who/what/when/where/why box when outlining your process, and also be sure to factor in how your organization will prepare for both expected and unexpected departures.  

Including the right stakeholders. Your succession plan should contain the roles and responsibilities of the board, staff, and volunteers. Consider all angles of your organization to create a complete, 360-degree plan that will prove much easier to implement. 

Writing it down and reviewing it annually. Verbal succession plans aren’t as helpful as they seem in our heads. Writing down a plan, having buy-in from key stakeholders including the Board of Directors for executive roles, and executing an annual review is vital to a succession plan being successful.

Elevating from the inside. Developing internal talent not only strengthens an organization but also creates an easy strategy for succession planning. A qualified candidate may be closer than you think.

Giving it some air. Transparency – internally and externally – is important for this process and for the culture of your nonprofit. To signal safe waters without undercurrents, decide how you’ll share out this plan and who will be involved in searches. 

Documenting is key. Documenting the steps taken and the people involved with creating your succession plan will breathe life into your organization and will showcase your commitment to a non-biased, fair approach. And, remember to keep the document in a shared space where others know it can be accessed. 

 Looking for a few other resources on succession planning?  

  • Check out this five-step checklist by Aly Sterling Philanthropy here. 
  • Here’s a quick-start framework from the Nonprofit Leadership Center. 
  • Propel Nonprofits has a helpful template to use. 
  • WeConservePA has multiple resources on its site.

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