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Succession planning

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By Barbara Metelsky

Nonprofits often experience serious disruptions in services, staff morale, fundraising efforts and other vital functions when the CEO or executive director of a nonprofit leaves the organization.

Often, there is advance notice of the impending departure.

In other cases, top executives leave suddenly, as a result of retirements, illness or death, or switching jobs and careers.

A recent study suggests only about one-third of nonprofits are prepared for sudden leadership losses.

Whatever the situation, the transition between leadership teams is all but certain to cause serious disruptions. Few nonprofits are prepared to deal with the negative impact of transition.

That does not have to be the situation.

Nonprofit boards and executive directors can cushion the impact of executive turnover by planning for orderly transitions through a carefully, thought-out succession plan.

A team of researchers defined succession planning as a two-part process that “plans organizational transference of executive authority…and the selection and appointment of either an insider or an outsider.”

Too often nonprofit leaders don’t want to spend the time and energy to focus on succession planning when delivering programs and raising funds seem to be a higher priority.

Succession planning takes discussion and consensus about how the organization will handle planned – and unplanned – changes in their leadership.

In the process, any thoughtful organization must consider whether promotion from within or recruitment from the outside is the preferred method of succession.

The choice of methods sends an important signal to constituencies inside and outside the organization. It also has implications for staff development and training.

Many resources exist to help nonprofits in succession planning, including a 2002 book entitled, “Chief Executive

Succession Planning: The Board’s Role in Securing Your Organization’s Future,” by Nancy Axelrod, former executive director of BoardSource.

The future of a nonprofit depends on its leadership.

While succession planning may seem like an issue for a time not crammed with so many other pressing issues, planning now may avoid serious disruptions at times that are even more critical to the organization.


Barbara Metelsky is director of the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

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