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Succession Planning for Leadership Transitions – It’s Not Just About the Executive Director

by Frank Abdale

There are many approaches to succession planning. Perhaps the most common — and potentially the most dangerous — is the ostrich approach: if we ignore it, it will never happen. It is similar to people who never write a will, because they are never going to die. We all know how well that works out.

Very often, there is some kind of emergency succession plan. This is basically an inventory of all the important file locations, passwords, contacts, contracts, policy numbers and other critical data we don’t need on a day-to-day basis, but when we do need it, we need it urgently. It includes who will step in, or up, in the case of a sudden, unplanned loss of leadership.

In the case of a planned executive transition, a thoughtful and thorough succession plan looks at the leadership qualities, management skills and values the organization wants in the next generation of leadership. The process of identifying those attributes represents a rare opportunity to engage with all stakeholders and results cataloguing the experience, background and traits to look for in candidates. Even when there is a strong internal candidate, the process can identify where she or he might need additional support and training in order to succeed. It also gives departing leaders an opportunity to think about their legacy and plan some next steps.

Consider that it is not just the ED at the center of succession planning. The process asks many critical questions:

  • Will the board remain stable during an executive transition?
  • How do term limits for officers and others align with the projected date of the ED’s departure?
  • Are there any senior staff or board members who are likely to leave around the same time?
  • If so, who will take on their roles?
  • Do we have a culture of developing board and staff leaders from within our ranks?
  • Who will take on stewardship of the key relationships currently held by the ED?
  • What fundraising and communications opportunities are to be found in honoring a departing ED?
  • Is this an opportunity to rethink our structure, maybe explore a merger?
  • Should we plan on hiring an Interim ED who can give an unbiased assessment of the state of the organization before deciding on a new permanent ED?

The list goes on. It is often helpful to have an outside consultant facilitate the process. She or he can keep discussions of these highly charged topics and related issues on neutral ground, have confidential conversations with all involved and keep the planning process on time and on track.

Succession planning can be challenging and emotional; it can also be inspiring and uplifting. It begins with a look at the values the board wants to perpetuate and the things staff and supporters love and admire about the current leadership. Succession planning builds on the past and present and looks ahead to where the fresh energy and vision of a new leader might take your organization.

Just like a will, not everyone needs to know exactly what’s in it, beyond the reassurance that the document has been thoughtfully prepared. So – do you have a succession plan? And, not that it’s my business, do you have a will?



Contact for a copy of our Succession Planning Literature Scan, a compilation of articles, monographs, and other writings on this topic from subject experts.

Other resources include:
Annie E. Casey Foundation
Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York
Succession Planning Toolkit –
Support Center | Partnership in Philanthropy