During a breakout session at a recent national conference, one question that was posed to the panel caught the attention of everyone in the room:  Are you ready for succession? In the midst of what had been a fairly animated discussion, an awkward silence filled the room, before some of the leaders in the room steered the conversation to other topics. This issue illustrates how the executive leadership and boards of arts organizations all across the nation are ignoring this critical yet sensitive issue that will surely confront all nonprofits in the near future.

Succession planning is very important, but not enough organizations are doing it.

A national survey of 2,200 executive directors at nonprofit organizations found that more than half of their organizations have no succession plan, even though nearly two-thirds of the executives plan to leave their jobs by 2009.

What constitutes a succession plan?

A succession plan policy is a tool to help an organization be prepared for planned or unplanned absences of the director, clarifying authority and decision-making, and thereby maintaining accountability and ensuring stability.  Since departures from an organization can be either expected or unexpected, a succession plan should include detailed plans for dealing with both instances.  The processes are different enough to call for having two separate plans or components: one for emergencies and one for planned succession.

What is found in an emergency succession plan?

An emergency succession plan details which steps a nonprofit will take after an abrupt departure, such as the sudden death of the executive director. It outlines who will alert the press, communicate with donors, and secure important documents.

see a Emergency Succession Plan Outline (PDF) and Emergency Succession Plan Template (PDF)

What is found in a planned succession plan?

A planned succession policy outlines the steps needed to make sure a transition is as orderly as possible, including details on how much notice the departing leader must give, if and how that person will be involved in the search for a successor, and how much overlap the outgoing and incoming leaders should have.

see Sample Succession Plan Policy (PDF) and a Sample Succession Plan (PDF)

Is the task of adopting these succession plans an easy one?

Adopting succession plans makes nonprofit officials uncomfortable for many reasons. Some see it as a threat to their authority, and others feel that it is unnecessary.

Why does succession planning strike fear among executive directors and boards?

Some directors worry that if they talk to their board about a leadership change, the board will think they are leaving. Many boards don’t want to talk about it because they feel it might give the executive director the idea that they have lost confidence in him or her.

What happens when organizational founders are involved?

Founders of nonprofits are especially likely to be threatened by succession planning. It is not uncommon for founders to merge their personal identities with their jobs over time, so this can get personal very easily and can seem a little like they are planning their own funeral.

How does succession planning help an organization?

Succession planning can prevent or greatly lessen many problems that nonprofit groups face when the executive leaves: decreased contributions, program cuts, confusion over the direction of the organization, flagging employee morale, and other challenges.

How do executive directors start the succession planning process?

Executive staff can start the succession planning process by meeting with the board and discussing strengths of potential successors among senior staff members, as well as areas where those people need more training. In one case, the board agreed to provide the three staff members with executive coaches, and the director began to give them responsibilities normally handled by the director. These tasks included such things as meeting with the press, working with leaders of other community funds, and attending board meetings. Eventually one of the senior staff members was chosen to succeed the executive director.  There is a risk associated with providing executive training–it may allow some employees to find executive jobs elsewhere, especially if their current organization offers few opportunities for advancement.

How are boards convincing their organizations to make a succession plan?

Board members should be asking their nonprofit organizations about succession planning. Board members who have had to scramble when the executive director left can educate other members on why this is problematic. Also, a growing number of major foundations have prioritized funding for succession planning.

Can succession plans be used to get directors to focus on training?

Some nonprofit boards have used emergency succession plans to get executive directors to focus on training their staffs. Executive directors and board members are asked to list three people who could take over the executive’s job in a crisis. That simple exercise often makes leaders see the need to train staff, make them privy to important information, and introduce them to stakeholders.

How do boards feel about succession planning once it is completed?

Board members from nonprofits that take the time to create a succession plan say the process is difficult but worthwhile. Some organizations have spent up to a year developing their plans. Results include emergency contingencies as well as policies on how to manage operations and search for the new executive director.

How do directors feel about succession planning once it is completed?

While succession planning can be uncomfortable, it is also liberating to some outgoing executives. A long tenured executive director who recently retired enjoyed her final months at the nonprofit. She gave the keys to her corner office to her successor and moved into a cubicle. Over six months, the former executive director came in three or four days a week, which allowed her to make the transition to retirement more easily.

Adapted in part from Succession: Arts Leadership for the 21st CenturyIllinois Arts Alliance