Succession Planning

The executive director or CEO is key to the success of your nonprofit. By engaging in succession planning for that staff position, you and your board will manage significant risk. It will also help strengthen your operations and organizational structure.

Planning of any kind is a top responsibility of the board of directors. It is also the hallmark of a great leader to train up those who will carry on after she leaves. Succession Planning responsibilities of the board and staff are to:

  • Understand the functions of the executive director position
  • Safeguard the organization against unexpected change
  • Facilitate a smooth leadership transition
  • Create a culture of succession planning


To prepare for the departure of your executive director, your organization will identify leadership development strategies. This includes the training and mentoring of younger leaders by senior staff. Your organization will also create formal succession plans and procedures.

Your board and staff will identify roles and responsibilities so it is clear who will execute the tasks left behind by the short-term or long-term vacancy of the executive director position. This includes work done by volunteer board members and paid staff. To complete an organizational assessment, your board will review your current strategic plans and consider the current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to your organization. This will help you identify the skills required of a new leader. Your nonprofit will review its current financial resources and funding strategies. Are they still adequate, and will they be attractive to potential candidates? The board and staff will need access to organizational knowledge that may be accessible only through your current executive director. Finally, a communications plan will ensure the board has identified a spokesperson. It will be his or her responsibility to discuss the short-term or permanent departure with the public. Assistants can also be identified.

The time to develop a plan is now, before the need is apparent. The Standards for Excellence® code recommends succession planning as part of board governance. It specifically states, “The board, in partnership with the executive, should engage in coordinated succession planning and leadership development to ensure a thorough process for recruiting and developing new board, executive, staff, and volunteer leaders.” The code makes clear that planning is also needed for board, key staff, and volunteer vacancies. For the Standards for Excellence® educational resource packet, please contact Carla Smotherman. This resource is free for members. Our office number is (205) 726-4712.