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Strategies for Nonprofit Succession Planning: The Succession Planning Process

By August 14, 2019September 30th, 2019Blog, Newsletter

By Dr. Nathan A. SchaumleffelProprietor & Senior Consultant, Driven Strategic LLC

As I said in Part I and Part II of this three-part article series on strategies for nonprofit succession planning, succession planning is about employee retention and employee retention is ultimately about culture.


“Culture trumps strategy; strategy drives structure; structure requires resources; resources accomplish objectives, produce outputs, & achieve outcomes; outcomes effectuate mission; mission begets vision!”

The bottom line is the nonprofit organizations that are the most successful at staff succession are the organizations that have a high employee retention rate, because of a healthy organizational culture.

A healthy organizational culture is what keeps employees around, so that when a CEO or senior staff member does depart the organization there is a pool of internal candidates that have the skill set to fill the vacant role.

If you happened to miss Part I, for the purposes of this article series, I subscribe to Susan M. Heathfield’s description of succession planning:

“Succession planning is ensuring a nonprofit organization will never have an open position for which another employee is not prepared. Succession planning is a systematic process of ensuring that employees are recruited and developed to fill each key role in a nonprofit organization before it becomes vacant.”

Throughout this series of three articles, I continue to come back to three things:

  • Organizational Culture
  • Employee Retention
  • Succession Planning

In Part I, I posed the following three questions:

  1. Why are nonprofit organizations experiencing an increase in CEOs and senior staff departing their organizations?
  2. How do we slow down or stop the out-migration of employees?
  3. Before someone leaves a CEO or senior staff position, how do we prepare to fill the vacancy with someone competent?

In the first article, I addressed why nonprofit organizations are experiencing an increase in CEOs and senior staff departing their organizations (e.g., toxic culture, lack of upward mobility).  In Part II of the article series, I addressed how we slow down or stop the out-migration of employees through strategic nonprofit leadership.

In this third and final article, I’ll share some more strategies to build a healthy organizational culture to slow down or stop the out-migration of employees through strategic nonprofit leadership, such as limiting the role of the outgoing CEO or senior staff member, valuing and rewarding strategic living, and embracing volunteer engagement.

Finally, I’ll address the third question and end the article and the article series with the nuts and bolts of actually embarking on a succession planning process before someone leaves a CEO or senior staff position, so that your organization is prepared to fill the vacancy with someone competent!

So, what strategies should nonprofit organizations use to build a healthy organizational culture to slow down or stop the out-migration of employees through strategic nonprofit leadership? Let’s take a look at three more strategies, beyond the first four I shared in Part II, that your organization can implement!

Strategy #5: Limit the Role of the Outgoing CEO or Senior Staff Member in the Succession

 In Strategy #4 in Part II of the article series, I said it is critical to have a strategic plan (i.e., Strategy #1), include human resources in the strategic plan (i.e., Strategy #2), and actually include talent management (i.e., Strategy #3) and succession planning (i.e., Strategy #4) as SMART objectives in the human resources section of the strategic plan with accountability assigned.  Remember assigning accountability is essentially clearly assigning who is going to do what by when.

For Strategy #5, I want you to realize when assigning accountability for succession planning that you need to limit the role of the outgoing CEO or senior staff member in the succession.  I encourage you to heed the warnings of Kittleman and Associates:

  • Don’t ask the outgoing CEO or senior staff member to be a member of the Search Committee.
  • Don’t enter into any agreement with the outgoing CEO for any consulting, employment, or project work for the organization that would begin after the new CEO begins.
  • Don’t involve the outgoing CEO or senior staff member in receiving, reviewing, or assessing candidate resumes.
  • Don’t elect the outgoing CEO or senior staff member to the organization’s governing board.
  • Don’t allow the recently departed CEO or senior staff member to meet with staff regarding current issues or problems.
  • Do ask the outgoing CEO or senior staff member to pay close attention to changes in employee group dynamics.
  • Do ask the outgoing CEO or senior staff member to meet privately with final candidates at the end of the search process.
  • Do ask the outgoing CEO to provide the new CEO with a list of key stakeholder names in the community for which the outgoing CEO may personally extend an introduction of the new CEO.

Limiting the role of the outgoing CEO or senior staff member in the succession provides an opportunity for others in the organization to reset the culture and enhance the desirability of the organization as a place that current employees want to stay!

 Strategy #6: Value & Reward Strategic Living

As I highlighted in the Leaderosity course, if a nonprofit organization is serious about creating a culture and place that is desirable for current employees to want to stay, then staff supervisors must value and reward strategic living, while simultaneously setting expectations for staff to be mission-focused.  If staff supervisors are serious about achieving the organization’s mission, then they must recognize much of the organizational culture comes down to the day-to-day supervisor-staff relationship.

There is one organization that comes to mind when we think about a nonprofit saying “mission accomplished.” The March of Dimes, originally founded in 1938 with the mission to eradicate polio, found that it had achieved its mission by 1957. They literally said, “We did it!”  Then, they said, “Now what?” In July 1958, instead of closing the organization because it achieved its original mission, March of Dimes set out on a new mission to prevent birth defects.

The likelihood of legitimately, completely achieving a lofty vision with a challenging mission, like the March of Dimes, is slim to none across any one nonprofit professional’s career!  Rarely, if ever, will any of you be a part of an organization where one day you come into the office sit down and say, “Well…WE DID IT! The mission is achieved and the vision is realized! There is no need for us. Let’s shut down and close up shop. Time for retirement.”

So, what does this mean for employee retention and succession planning? It means we need to approach the nonprofit careers of our staff members as marathons, maybe even ironmans, but, certainly not as a sprint!

If your organization’s culture is to make staff sprint a marathon, you will have a high-level of burnout, a high rate of employee turnover, and rarely will you have someone internally prepared to fill a critical vacancy, especially at the CEO or senior staff level!

 Burnout is a leading reason for nonprofit professionals to leave their jobs and to leave the sector. If your organization has a culture of burnout causing employees to leave their jobs, then you will definitely not achieve the vision and mission that you are so passionate about!

Remember, it is human resources that accomplish objectives, produce outputs, and achieve outcomes!  Your staff are mission-focused human resources. They are the glue between your mission and those your organization serves.

Nonprofit organizations must have a culture of valuing and rewarding strategic living!

First and foremost, the organizational culture must recognize that busy does not mean impactful!

Let me say that again, BUSY DOES NOT MEAN IMPACTFUL!

Staff supervisors must allow employees to manage and negotiate their work loads, projects, and deadlines, as well as allow employees to say no to additional projects without retribution. Staff supervisors need to prioritize the work they delegate to staff members, based on the mission, so that employees are working impactfully, instead of busily.

There is never going to be enough time in the day to finish all of the work, so at some point you’re going to have to limit the work to that which is most critical to making a measurable impact on the mission!  Be smart about what you’re putting on your staff members’ plates in terms of portion size and nutrition.  The vast majority of nonprofit employees feel like there is more work than time in a day, always feel behind, and never feel like there is a good time to take their paid time off (PTO), which is a recipe for burnout, employee turnover, and poor succession!

Forcing employees to be busy for busy’s sake and not allowing employees to say no creates a toxic culture!  Putting an emphasis on going deep, as opposed to going wide with tasks is critical to managing burnout, creating a healthy culture, retaining employees, and preparing for successful succession.

Being smart and strategic about what you’re putting on your staff members’ plates, allowing them to negotiate workload and workflow, and allowing them to say no helps them manage their time and wellness by making time in their day for self-care.

Self-care is not selfish! Nonprofit professionals cannot be successful in the social sector taking care of others, unless they take care of themselves!  Self-care is critical to managing burnout and achieving the mission!

Many speakers refer to self-care and managing burnout as maintaining work-life balance. Some speakers argue work-life balance is the light and the way as a professional.  Other speakers argue there is no such thing as work-life balance, and talk about work-life integration. It seems all speakers agree that nonprofit executives must find a way to juggle the multiple demands of life: work, parenting, spouse/partner relationships, social life, rest, sleep, medical care, therapeutic services, recreation and leisure, meal planning and preparation, household maintenance, and more.

Time management is a key strategy to balancing multiple demands, including the demand of self-care. Managing time includes managing tasks that make it onto your to-do list. The first and best strategy to managing tasks, and in turn managing time, is to allow employees to use a powerful word……NO!  Allow employees to say no to new tasks that spread them thin, and cause them to be busy, yet not impactful.

As nonprofit professionals across the country consistently tell me how busy they are and how they are approaching burnout, I ask them if they know their bandwidth, which is their capacity to balance the multiple demands of life. I ask them to answer the following questions from my Bandwidth Barometer:

  • Are you in bed less than 8 hours most nights?
  • Are you getting less than 60 minutes of physical activity, less than 4 days each week?
  • Are you chronically unhappy and stressed out?
  • Do you always feel like your treading water with your nose and mouth barely above water, while you’re drinking from a firehouse at the same time?

If the individual answered yes to most of these questions, then their bandwidth has run out! No more bandwidth, no more tasks! Burnout is approaching, and probably departure from your organization.

The employee needs to be able to say no to new tasks, as well as re-negotiate his or her current workload, projects, and deadlines.  Furthermore, employees need to be able to delegate tasks to subordinate staff members or even to qualified volunteers with a strategy to monitor progress and completion of the tasks.

If you or your employees don’t feel like delegating tasks to subordinate staff members or qualified volunteers is possible, then you’ll need to examine your staff and volunteer recruitment, selection, training, and onboarding strategies. Delegation is critical to time management! Time management is critical to self-care! Self-care is critical to managing burnout!  Managing burnout is critical to employee retention!  Employee retention is critical to successful succession!

Recruiting and retaining qualified staff and volunteers that you trust enough to delegate mission-critical tasks to is absolutely essential to: 1) unbusying yourself and your employees; 2) making time for self-care; 3) managing burnout; 4) creating and maintaining a healthy culture; 5) retaining employees; and 6) preparing for succession of the C-Suite.

The messages to you are these:

  • Value and reward strategic living of your employees!
  • Busy does not mean impactful!
  • Embrace volunteer engagement!

Strategy #7: Embrace Volunteer Engagement

Embracing volunteer engagement as a tool to create the human resources necessary to make a measurable impact on your organization’s mission is critical, especially while allowing your organization to value and reward strategic living by its staff.

Many nonprofit organizations effectively use volunteers, while just as many nonprofits do not use volunteers effectively at all.  Many nonprofit organizations employ someone to manage or coordinate volunteers with one of the following titles or a similar title:

  • Volunteer Manager
  • Volunteer Coordinator
  • Volunteer Administrator
  • Manager of Volunteer Services
  • Coordinator of Volunteers Services
  • Director of Community Engagement and Volunteerism

Having an employee with one of the above or similar titles is great!  However, these employees tend to be some of the youngest and newest employees on the organizational chart, far below the senior leadership or C-Suite.  The employees that do well in these roles tend to move up the organizational chart to middle management and out of volunteer management quickly, while the employees that do poorly tend to leave the organization.

My experience here is that volunteer management positions are high turnover roles with young professionals with very little political capital within the organization causing the role of volunteer management, and more importantly volunteer engagement, to be cast aside, left out of the strategic plan, inappropriately under resourced in the annual operating budget, and underappreciated as a tool for employee retention and succession planning.

Not only can engaging volunteers lighten the work loads of staff members, so that they can manage their burnout and self-care, but volunteers can contribute to a healthy organizational culture and can be the people that succeed employees.

Most nonprofit organizations need to take stock of their volunteer program to see if volunteerism is making as much of an impact as possible on those the organization serves.  Moreover, organizations need to reimagine how engaging volunteers can build capacity to achieve their mission and vision! Organizations need to reimagine volunteer work design beyond those serving on the Board of Directors and those doing simple and routine things like answering phones, greeting office visitors, and stuffing fundraising envelopes for the next direct mail campaign.

Nonprofit organizations need to reimagine volunteer work design to engage volunteers at the CEO and senior staff level to build capacity that limits employee turnover! How can we more intentionally engage qualified volunteers with our clients through programs, services, events, product development, and advocacy efforts?  And, most importantly, how do we reimagine volunteer work design to engage volunteers as highly-skilled, pro bono volunteers doing the work that overfloweth the plates of our senior staff?

The answer lies in the importance and respect that we put on our volunteer program and volunteer manager.

Throughout the three articles, I used the terms senior staff and C-Suite interchangeably.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term C-Suite, it refers to the following senior staff positions in organizations:

  • Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
  • Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)
  • Chief Operating Officer (COO)
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
  • Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)
  • Chief Talent Officer (CTO)
  • Chief People Officer (CPO)
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO)
  • Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
  • Chief Strategy Officer (CSO)
  • Chief Data Officer (CDO)

To embrace volunteer engagement and to reimagine volunteer work design to engage volunteers as highly-skilled, pro bono volunteers, I highly recommend elevating your Volunteer Manager or Coordinator of Volunteer Services to the role of Chief Volunteer Officer or CVO. The CVO needs to be considered a C-Suite position with C-Suite influence, C-Suite respect, and C-Suite resources!

This change in title and elevation on the organizational chart for the volunteer manager, essentially, recognizes the critical role of volunteers as mission-focused human resources that are paramount to moving clients toward the mission in measurably impactful ways, all while lightening the work loads of staff members, including senior staff, and contributing to a healthy organizational culture.

Strategy #8: Embark on a Succession Planning Process

 As I mentioned in Part I, embracing succession planning activates your strategic plan and leads to nonprofit sustainability!  It can be difficult to separate CEO and senior staff succession planning from employee retention strategies. Focusing on employee retention strategies is key, all while realizing employee transitions are inevitable. As Tom Adams plainly states, “while it is tempting to deny it, every leader will transition someday.”  Nonprofit organizations must work to ensure smooth, healthy, and positive departures of CEOs and senior staff while investing in and developing talent as competent replacements.

Throughout this three-article series, I’ve offered seven strategies related to creating or maintaining a healthy organizational culture to increase employee retention, so that the organization is better prepared to fill open positions with a qualified internal candidate.

Now, after implementing the first seven strategies I shared, I encourage you to embark on a succession planning process for your nonprofit organization.

In the grand scheme of things (that is almost 1.9 million nonprofits in the U.S.), few nonprofit organizations have updated, actionable strategic plans.  Fewer have written succession plans.  And, even fewer integrate human resource planning and succession planning into the strategic plan. As Aly Sterling shared, a nonprofit succession plan is a strategic document. Similarly, I see it as integral to or an extension of the strategic plan.

The emphasis or value of succession planning is not the product, which is the final written document, but it is the process.  The process of stakeholders from an organization engaging in a planning process to ensure consistent, qualified human resources are being developed to manage and lead the organization in the future is far more important that using a template from the internet to quickly produce a succession plan document.

If you’re looking for several examples of completed nonprofit succession plans to use as templates, there is not much out there in terms of specific succession plans from actual organizations.  One good example to see an end product is the Leadership Development and Emergency Succession Plan from the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. This is a good tool to help others visualize what will be produced by your organization through an inclusive process that includes thorough discussion, debate, thought, and planning. I caution you to not use this example as a template to quickly adapt and adopt for your organization’s purposes.  There is no one size fits all approach to succession plans. And, really there is not even a one size fits most!

However, if you’re interested in the process of succession planning for nonprofit organizations, there are numerous resources available. I will share, highlight, and integrate many of my favorite available resources in the remainder of this article.

The Bridgespan Group articulates the succession planning process as “proactively identifying and developing new leaders to succeed current ones and meet the nonprofit’s future leadership needs.” They continue describing succession planning as an internal process of “thinking through how an organization’s leadership needs will evolve in the future, identifying future leaders, and identifying activities to strengthen leadership capacity are the core of succession planning.”

I’ve been clear throughout this article series that culture trumps strategy! But, strategy drives structure. It is critical to understand the leadership capabilities, as mapped on the organizational chart – the structure, that are required to implement the organization’s strategy. The Bridgespan Group added, “with this understanding, the organization can assess the potential of current staff to become future leaders to meet emerging needs.”

When writing and adopting a succession plan, the Board of Directors must be committed to the process of succession planning, strategic planning, and good governance.  The current strategic planning process should identify current and future challenges facing the organization, while the succession plan, as suggested by the National Council of Nonprofits, should identify the “corresponding leadership qualities that are needed to navigate the challenges successfully.”  The succession plan should include a timeline for leadership succession that are planned, as well as include a prepared strategy for emergency or unplanned departures.

As part of a nonprofit leadership transition process, Nick Price, The Bridgespan Group, and Charitable Advisors suggest the board of directors and/or governance committee ask and answer the following questions to guide the discussion and production of a succession plan:

  • Do we have a current strategic plan? If not, why not? If yes, are human resources planning and succession planning integrated into the strategic plan?
  • What current and future challenges are facing the organization, as identified in the strategic plan?
  • Who is on our current leadership team? How long is their tenure? What are their individual strengths and expertise?
  • How are very short-term absences covered right now for the CEO or Executive Director (like vacation)?
  • What risks do we face if our executive director or CEO leaves or resigns?
  • Assuming payroll was happening, the first concerns to arise in case of the CEO’s unexpected absence would be?
  • What will the impact of an executive director or CEO turnover be?
  • What would the Board of Director’s role be in the case of an unexpected absence? Who’s involved?
  • If the CEO were unavailable for more than a few weeks, we would need additional support in….?
  • Can we cross-train staff to delegate certain duties temporarily?
  • What is the best way to delegate authority on a temporary basis?
  • How do we fill any leadership gaps?
  • Will we need an interim leader? Who can/should fill that role? Where would we look for an Interim CEO?
  • What current and future leadership needs does the organization have?
  • What is the current relationship between the Board and CEO?
  • How does the Board want the relationship to change with a new CEO?
  • What are the critical skills the new CEO must possess?
  • What is our preferred timeline for completing the recruiting and hiring process?
  • Are our hiring and onboarding processes sufficient for a quick succession?

Beyond the discussion suggested above by Nick Price, The Bridgespan Group, and Charitable Advisors, Aly Sterling suggests a five phase succession planning process:

  1. Assess what vacancies your nonprofit succession plan will address.
  2. Align an internal vision for your nonprofit succession plan.
  3. Begin cultivating internal talent for future transitions.
  4. Outline the executive search phase of your nonprofit succession plan.
  5. Transition the individual into their role at your nonprofit.

Interestingly, in succession planning, culture again always trumps strategy! As your organization begins cultivating internal talent for future transitions, Aly Sterling explains that, “one of the biggest obstacles an individual can face when transitioning into an important leadership role at a nonprofit is not meshing well with the organization’s established culture. There are several cultural challenges that can get in the way of a successor seamlessly taking on their role and successfully serving as a leader at their organization. If they’re an external hire, they may face pushback from individuals who have long served your nonprofit. Conscious or not, there will almost always be some degree of awkwardness as new dynamics are forged and the role’s precursor departs.”

Once your board of directors, CEO, senior staff, and other stakeholders finish the succession planning process, as well as approve the succession plan document, the jury will still be out on the success of your organization’s succession planning.  Ira Wolf pointed out some important reasons why succession planning fails:

  • Designated successors (i.e., heirs apparent) leave the organization.
  • Incumbent doesn’t leave the organization.
  • Successors aren’t successful.
  • Successor is selected because of success in old position, not based on the skills needed for the new position.
  • Successor has a fixed mindset.
  • Succession planning is not a central part of the strategic plan, nor resourced or monitored appropriately.

If succession planning goes wrong or is never done in the first place, the National Council of Nonprofits asserted that an organization can be “vulnerable to losses in external funding because of a long-time donor or grantmaker taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to the new leadership.”

As Tom Adams suggested, the succession planning process should “reduce the disruption and risk of executive transition, as well as expand the culture and practices of leader development, inclusion, and diversity.” In short, he is suggesting an organizational culture that invests in talent management (i.e., Strategy #3) is critical to successful transitions of CEOs and senior staff.

All in all, as Charitable Advisors highlighted, it is important for board members, CEOs, and senior staff to truly understand how critical succession planning is to an organization’s immediate success and long-term sustainability.  They add, succession planning protects your organization’s capacity to perform key functions, sustain important relationships, and fulfill commitments to the people served and to the organization’s stakeholders.

I’ll end with this….Tim Wolfred makes a fantastic point, “at the most basic level, succession planning is a sound risk management practice.”

The End of Another Trilogy

Well, there you have the final four strategies that I’ll offer for nonprofit succession planning!

I could not agree more with Doug Osborne when he made the point that attracting and retaining top talent is one of the greatest culture challenges facing leaders today.

Remember succession planning is about employee retention and employee retention is ultimately about culture. Culture ALWAYS trumps strategy!

Now that you’ve read the trilogy, I hope the strategies I offered for CEO and senior staff succession planning fully make sense and are actionable in some useful way for your organization!

I hope you don’t just jump straight to Strategy #8 and write and approve a succession plan based on some template you found on Google!  That would be a fatal flaw to not look at employee retention issues and find ways to improve your organization’s culture, as well as intentionally plan for CEO and senior staff transitions.

As always, you can watch my recorded webinar on strategies for nonprofit succession planning at my website!

And, lastly, the offer always stands for you to make a free 30-minute consultation appointment with me to discuss succession planning issues or any other nonprofit issue in your organization!

©Driven Strategic LLC, 1826 Ohio Street, Terre Haute, IN 47807 – All Rights Reserved

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