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January 20, 2022
Why Your Nonprofit Needs a Plan A
By Kirk Kramer and Samantha Levine

Kirk Kramer and Samantha Levine
Kirk Kramer and Samantha Levine
Nonprofit executives recognize the need to develop a new generation of leaders to sustain their missions, but most often ask how can they invest in building future leaders’ skills when they barely have enough resources to sustain current activities.

Even if they could scrape together the funds, nonprofit leaders ask where would they find the time to foster new leaders when everyone is already working at full capacity?

It’s true that investing in leadership can feel like a luxury compared with investing in programs at the heart of a nonprofit’s mission. But failure to invest in leadership puts the entire mission at risk. What they need is what we call “Plan A.”

In essence, Plan A (a term we borrowed from American Express CEO Ken Chenault) is a vision of an organization’s future leadership team three to five years out, including the capabilities and roles needed to achieve its strategy, and an overview of the development steps needed to build that team. The five processes that build to and proceed from Plan A are these:

Engaging Senior Leaders.
In organizations that build leaders for the long-term, the CEO or ED is the de facto chief talent officer. She signals the importance of leadership development, sets expectations for her team, and puts the process in motion by first developing her direct reports and then asking them to do the same for their teams. It’s also the CEO’s job to engage the board in leadership development. Failure to do so means the board is likely to remain a bystander, to the detriment of the overall effort.

Understanding Future Needs.
Nonprofits that successfully develop future leaders regularly identify how the organization may change over time, then proactively develop their teams or bring in new talent to succeed under changing circumstances.

Developing Future Leaders.
Leaders develop primarily through well-designed, on-the-job experiences. Research has shown that the most effective leadership development follows a 70-20-10 model, in which 70% of learning comes from on-the-job experiences, coaching and mentoring 20%, and formal training 10%. While many nonprofits offer their staff a variety of stretch opportunities, the most successful are systematic in how they provide those opportunities, building the right skills in the right people over time. Similarly, mentoring and formal training are carefully targeted (for example, when a staff member is transitioning into a new leadership role).

Hiring Externally to Fill Gaps.
Few nonprofits can fulfill their Plan A through internal promotions alone. But by fostering a two-way information exchange with top job candidates and supporting new hires through the onboarding process, they can ensure that their search efforts result in a candidate that meets the organization’s leadership priorities and is set up for success upon arrival.

Monitoring and Improving Practices.
Nonprofits can’t manage their leadership development processes without measuring them. The Plan A pros among nonprofits gather data to ensure that they are implementing what they set out to do, making progress toward their Plan A goals, and continuously improving their leadership development processes.

We won’t kid you: Leadership development is a long-term undertaking demanding on-going attention. Often the biggest challenge can be knowing where and how to start.

To help, Bridgespan has developed a guide to leadership development at nonprofits called Plan A: How Successful Nonprofits Develop Future Leaders, based on the best practices of organizations whose efforts can serve as a model for other nonprofits. The Plan A guide provides specific examples of how to implement each of the five processes regardless of your organization’s size.

Kirk Kramer, partner with The Bridgespan Group, heads the organization’s leadership initiatives; Samantha Levine manages Boston-area leadership initiatives for Bridgespan. Contact them at and or 617-572-2336.
Originally published on massnonprofit news November 2012
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