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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can effective leadership succession planning result in nonprofit sustainability?

Illustration of people arranged in a triangle pointed downwards. The person at the point is colored orange and others are green.

Illustration by Yuxin Qin

Leadership succession planning, similar to donor succession planning, is often addressed when the concern arises rather than preemptively within a nonprofit organization’s fiscal year. This is a common theme that lurks in the veins of many of our organizations. Raising awareness of this critical issue faced by the nonprofit sector; evidenced with high turnover and lackluster leadership practices and training, is an important check for all professionals to be aware of, and in doing so, will prepare professionals to implement a renewed leadership model that will support organizational composition from the ground up.

Hui Li states that there are distinct differences between planned and unplanned leadership successions: “A smooth and successful transition contributes to organizational performance and sustainability, whereas a failed attempt causes resource deficits, power resistance, identity crises, or even organizational death.” In order to prevent this from occurring, organizations must create a roadmap for their organizational future, and in doing so, they may identify areas of improvement and innovation that may not have been looked at until there were gaps in leadership.

Planning for the future – or living in the moment?

Training, development and resource support are often scarce within the sector, leading to increased workload and decreased training for necessary roles, which adds to the “struggle to hire and train employees,” as Paul Light asserts. Compared with the business and for-profit sector, this area is often targeted by specific roles to ensure compliance, efficiency and development, which keeps the business flourishing.

To plan for the future is as important as securing donors for the organization. As the sector grows and changes, so too do our leaders. Many of those that serve at the executive level and have been in the sector for decades will at some point seek retirement. While succession planning is not a new phenomenon, it is rarely focused on the executive level and more commonly practiced for board leadership replacements. By no means does the research suggest to let go of older generations and replace with younger professionals, but rather to take a more collaborative approach to developing the organization vs. riding the wave of knowledge and seasoned professionalism from the most tenured executive.

While it is easy to say “go make a plan for tomorrow,” it is understood that nonprofit professionals are often overworked and under-resourced. This rings true for many organizations. However, research has shown that through the regular implementation of a succession planning cycle, organizations are actually able to more efficiently run day-to-day operations vs. those that do not spend the time assessing their current structure.


It does not happen overnight, but this planning will allow your organization to operate with 20/20 vision for the future. This is a bold claim, but when one prepares for various scenarios and addresses some of the regular challenges that are faced on a daily cycle, a new normal emerges.

1. Develop a vibrant pipeline

Revisit this on a regular cycle and identify how development opportunities can be implemented into those currently serving your organization. Create a trajectory and people will be future-motivated.

2. Validate your work

What work is being done, and by whom? Are there duplications of efforts that can be corrected, or does the role need to be separated into two different positions? Performing a quarterly or bi-annual assessment allows for course corrections in the moment and supports succession planning too.

3. Exposure

Often, only executive leaders are given access to board leaders and donors. All staff should play a part in the board and organizational direction. Everyone will have the same vision and be exposed to the community. For staff to truly understand the mission and direction of the work, they must be involved. It also creates space to identify future leaders and allow them to work as a liaison to the board and external stakeholders.

4. Collaboration

Combining efforts in the areas of overhead and administrative costs, sharing development opportunities and even tapping into similar donor pools creates a network of influence and can aid in resource depletion. One team = one dream!

Successful organizations are not built overnight. They take humility, hard work and support. Even the best organizations experience succession gaps. However, their impact can be mitigated through proper planning and trial/error. Even in the storm, success is possible as Jodi Diamond says, and it’s “because we have a strong board, more staff involved in all aspects of planning, and because the loyalty of our staff that we’ve been able to weather the storm.”


Syvan Diamond is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She was recently inducted into Nu Lambda Mu, the International Honor Society for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Social Entrepreneurship & Enterprise. She earned her undergraduate degree at San Diego State University and has been serving the nonprofits in the community since 2015.  A passionate fundraising and development professional, Syvan is eager to return to the nonprofit sector after a brief hiatus in the for-profit realm due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Syvan is a San Diego native who currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona, alongside her fiancé and their three pups. 


Learn more by enrolling in the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate from the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Management Institute. This is an exclusive learning and networking experience just for executive directors, senior-level managers and emerging executives of nonprofit and public organizations. Gain the confidence, skills and networks you need to successfully lead your organization into the future. Scholarships are available.

Photo of Syvan Diamond.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog