Succession planning: Ensuring continuity during leadership changes

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial

Developing a succession plan for an organization is a basic risk management exercise, yet many nonprofits have not taken the time to consider how they will continue their important work in the wake of leadership changes. Admittedly, succession planning takes time, but the time investment now can yield future benefits when the organization is able to successfully manage its way through changes in leadership without gaps in services or organizational activities. Here are some initial ideas to get the conversation started.

Succession planning for the executive director: If boards think about the departure of the director at all, they prefer to think about a planned departure—one that includes plenty of lead time and overlap with the incoming director to help with a smooth leadership handoff. Realistically, this scenario is not always possible, so a succession plan should include contingencies for both the planned—as well as the unplanned—departure of the executive.

Is the executive director’s job description up-to-date? If someone needed to step into the executive director’s position today, is the job description an accurate depiction of the position’s responsibilities and expectations?

During its annual planning process or executive director evaluation, the board should review and update the executive director’s job description, ensuring that the responsibilities are linked to the strategic priorities of the organization. This ensures that the job is clearly outlined in the event that someone else needs to step into the position.

Is the organization developing leadership internally? The board should consider if there are people in the organization who can take on its leadership—or a portion of the role—even temporarily. This is not about designing an assistant director position. This is about designing an organizational culture that supports growing the skills of its staff members. Developing an organization’s bench strength not only supports a succession plan, it benefits the organization’s overall capacity to do its work.

What information leaves the organization when the executive director leaves? An executive director needs to be knowledgeable and well-connected to the organization’s donors, funding partners and clients, but what happens to this information and these connections when the executive director departs? Naturally, relationships are about more than what can be documented in a database, but it’s important to make sure that donor and funder records are up-to-date and that others in the organization can access and understand database and other records.

Is the current salary and benefits package adequate to attract applicants? Noncompetitive wage and benefit packages can result in “sticker shock” when it is time to hire for leadership positions within the organization. Therefore, it makes sense for the board to conduct regular salary reviews to allow the organization to make smaller corrections as needed to maintain competitive wages and benefits.


Succession planning for the board

Boards tend to think of succession planning as something that is specific to staff leadership, yet board leadership plays a key role in maintaining the strength and focus of an organization. Therefore, it makes sense to develop a leadership succession plan for the board as well.

Be clear about expectations: Many organizations have an informal policy that the vice-president will step into the president’s role after one or two officer terms. Often committees are staffed with a chair and an assistant, with the understanding that the assistant will move into the committee chair role. However, if these assumptions are not written down and understood by everyone, there may be times when they fall through and leave the board with a gap in leadership. It’s important to clarify expectations and identify board leadership well in advance of the nominations process.

Recruit board members thoughtfully: When recruiting board members, it’s critical to match members’ capabilities and interests to the skills needed by the organization. Developing board member job descriptions, as well as descriptions for committee chairs and board officers, will clarify leadership expectations. This allows the board to recruit new board members with these roles in mind, which strengthens the leadership capacities of the entire board.

Like other types of planning, succession planning helps get everyone on the same page about the assumptions and priorities of the organization. Developing succession plans for the organization’s staff and board leadership ensure that the services the organization provides are not diminished in the wake of leadership changes. Transitions and change are a fundamental part of the life of organizations; preparing for them can make the challenges of change easier to manage.



Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit