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September 19, 2020
Nonprofit Succession Planning Helps Assure Organizational Survival
By Eric Cormier

Eric Cormier
Eric Cormier
Nonprofit leaders typically serve for long periods, but organizations that neglect to plan ahead for the turnover that will inevitably occur—when those leaders retire or accept offers elsewhere—might be setting themselves up for disaster.

In organizations that make succession planning a priority, nothing too momentous is likely to occur when their leaders move on and leadership transitions will generally be smooth. On the other hand, organizations that do not devote attention to this issue can expect anything from a bumpy ride to complete disintegration.

Clearly, succession planning is critical. It is more important than ever for the nonprofit sector because many leaders are now reaching retirement age.

What exactly is succession planning? According to the Society for Human Resource Management, it is the process of identifying high-potential employees, evaluating and honing their skills and abilities, and preparing them for advancement in positions that are key to the success of business operations and objectives.

The process is especially complicated in the nonprofit world where people from within the organization are frequently promoted to leadership roles and may lack the appropriate leadership skills. Since nonprofit compensation packages are typically not as robust as those offered by for-profit entities, attracting talent can be difficult. Also, highly specialized jobs make relevant experience a primary requirement. The results of such mismatches can lead to loss of productivity, revenue, and organizational continuity.

Nonprofits can avoid such scenarios, but preparation is key. Boards and executive directors should consider the following:
  • Forecast: Analyze the status quo and develop future goals, even if there is no immediate need for a change in leadership. Identify probable changes in staffing, work volume, and key positions that support the organizational goals, along with the competencies linked to these positions. In addition, set a deadline for implementing a succession plan that aligns with organizational goals. Develop a detailed action plan and revisit it at least once a quarter, because as the organization changes, so should the plan.

  • Examine the talent pool: Thoroughly study the skills, experience, and interests of the organization’s employees. Performance reviews and one-on-one discussions about career preferences and goals can be helpful. There may be diamonds in the rough #147; employees who can be groomed for leadership. By creating individual development plans for them, leaders can help ensure that these employees achieve their full potential.

  • Train promising employees: It is important to invest time and money in training individuals who show potential. Waiting until someone leaves to begin training others within the organization can be a costly mistake. Training should be an ongoing process and cross-training is always beneficial.

  • Avoid decisions based on convenience: Beware of instant gratification, which often leads to long-term remorse. If a role becomes vacant unexpectedly, filling the position with an unqualified employee who is promoted simply because the position needs to be filled could be the wrong approach. If necessary, place an existing employee in the role on a temporary basis for a trial period. Training is essential, so do not expect the employee to learn the role overnight.

  • Consider external hires: Although it is important to groom future leaders, sometimes it may be necessary to look outside of the organization when filling key positions, because new faces can bring fresh insights to an organization.
The steps outlined above may seem logical and straightforward, but they are easy to overlook, especially when there are so many other issues competing for the attention of boards and nonprofit executives. That is why it is important to recognize that even the most dedicated leaders will not remain in their positions indefinitely.

Turnover is a fact of life in the working world, along with retirement, which is particularly relevant to the nonprofit community. For nonprofits, survival tomorrow requires succession planning today.

Eric Cormier is a human resource specialist with Insperity, a trusted advisor to America’s best businesses for more than 27 years. For more information, call 800-465-3800 or visit
November 2013
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