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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Succession Planning for Nonprofit Organizations

If your nonprofit is serious about long-term sustainability, succession planning needs to be part of the overall plan for the organization. The team has poured their hearts and souls into setting goals, developing strategies, and recruiting staff and volunteers, only to have all that work potentially go to waste when a leader leaves the organization. Disruption happens and the more prepared the organization is for change, the better for long-term success.

Write it down:

BoardSource reports that only 27 percent of all organizations have a written executive succession plan. That means nearly three quarters do not. In the event the executive director leaves, there will be a transition time to not only figure out an interim leader but a process to identify a new one. Without a written plan, assumptions may be made that aren’t aligned with the overall vision and resources spent to start a process that should have already been happening. 

If there is not written succession plan, consider the following:

  • How can the existing leader help with the transition process? It can take months to find the right replacement even in the best of circumstances. The current leader can provide feedback about the organization from their unique perspective, identify skills and experience for the successor, and be involved in the succession plan.
  • Do you need an interim person until the position is filled? If your existing leader is unwilling or unable to help with the process to replace them, consider appointing an interim leader. While this likely means extra tasks for the remaining team, it may make sense to parse out the most important work to them while searching for the right candidate. 
  • What is the chain of command for specific projects and tasks? It may be called the Emergency Leadership Transition Plan and the purpose is to keep the organization moving forward in spite of changes. Communicate the plan to all levels of the organization to create continuity of process and trust in the remaining leadership team.
  • Is there a written manual? Even if there is no written succession plan, there may be a policies and procedures manual the interim staff can use as a guide. And if there isn’t, now is a good time to document processes so the team isn’t left not knowing what to do in the future. 

The more that is communicated and documented, the better for the organization moving forward.

Identify opportunities for change.

As you’re developing a succession plan, or working through a transition, ask the team, including leaders, Board of Directors, and volunteers, for their feedback.

  • What leadership style does the organization need for long-term sustainability? Hint: It may be different than the style of the outgoing person. 
  • What are the lessons learned from the major fundraising events? What worked, what didn’t, and how will future events be different? You may need someone with specific experience. 
  • What are future challenges? Anticipating these needs is key to long-term sustainability. If it is fundraising, then hiring a grant writer may be a solution. If it is better organized events, then revamp the teams responsible for planning and executing. 

Effective leaders understand not only how to lead but how to do it effectively. Succession planning for nonprofit organizations is vital to the people and communities being served. Taking time to find the right candidate will sustain the mission for the long-term, even if there are growing pains in the interim. 

Jarrett started The Rayvan Group in 2009 and brings more than 15 years’ experience with international, national and local organizations, including Girls Golf of Phoenix, Habitat for Humanity, the Paraiso Project and St. Mary's Food Bank. She has successfully managed development and communications functions for more than 10 campaigns with a combined goal totaling $6 million. She is passionate about creating community, empowering others to see and exceed their full potential, and crafting compelling stories in support of mission-driven organizations. Jarrett holds an MBA in business from the University of Phoenix and Certificate of Grant Writing from The Grantsmanship Center Institute.  Awards include 40 Under 40, AZ Central Who's Next Nominee, Greater Phoenix Athena Nominee, AmAZing Women of Arizona recipient and the Global Women's Summit Leadership Award. 


ASU Lodestar Center Blog