Planning for Nonprofit Succession

INVESTMENT IN TRAINING = Retention + Productivity + Increased Revenue

Ever found yourself in this position of panic?  Your most qualified staff member has just said they are leaving your organization in two weeks.  You have no back up plan and no one on your team qualified to step into the void.  You know the talent out there and you also know you can’t compete with the high-end salaries offered at larger nonprofits.  Whether you are a Board Member, a Senior Executive or the junior about to lose your mentor, we all know the high cost of this scenario on organizations.  How do you minimize the impact? Be prepared, think about the inevitable, embrace the preparation and planning for nonprofit succession well before that knock on your door.

Staff leave their organizations for numerous reasons. Some level of turnover is to be anticipated, and in fact, it can be healthy, however it can cause significant upheaval.  How, then, do you retain and enhance your staff for as long as possible?  One way is through the added value benefit of investing in leadership development.  I agree with James W. Shephard Jr. who wrote, “investment in leadership development results in more mission impact, higher revenues, lower costs, and greater stability” [1].  ROI is not just a financial concept; strengthening leadership development produces concrete improvements in the areas nonprofits care most about.

Plymouth University studied the impending crisis in nonprofit leadership. From more than 1,100 surveys, “The Wake Up Call” identified 67% of leaders are planning to leave their position in the next five years with key unmet development needs in leadership training, mentoring, and coaching. Even more alarming: 78% of nonprofits do not have a formal succession plan [2].  This paints a bleak picture and illustrates how important it is to plan for succession.  Let this blog be your wake-up call!

An organization that fails to develop its people will find it more difficult to effectively achieve its goals. Lack of learning, growth, mentorship and support can easily be resolved through customized mentoring, training and workshops.  In my professional career I have used this tool as a pillar of both succession and retention and it has worked extremely well.

Charities do not generally have large budgets to send staff to conferences across the country, but they can afford to hire a seasoned consultant to design customized training.  In fact, bringing a team together in joint learning experiences complimented by individualized coaching sessions in specific knowledge and skill areas is the glue that enhances staff retention.  Remember, because knowledge is staying in your organization, your team is more focused on achieving organizational goals.

Some leaders fear investments in leadership development will walk out the door, but research suggests just the opposite.  Staff members who feel their organizations support their growth stay longer than those who don’t because they trust their organization will continue to invest in them over time [3].

Senior Leadership and the Board play a critical role in securing the best ROI for their charity when they connect talent development to organizational goals.

Align strategy for talent to goals for impact.  A good example is tasking managers who are committed and effective talent champions with mentoring and developing the most promising rising stars.  Co-create individual development plans which help staff members identify skills they need to develop to push the organization towards its goals. The plan should also identify development training opportunities through both formalized training and sessions delivered by seasoned consultants to fill the gaps.

The sustainability of your nonprofit organization dictates that succession planning isn’t optional. Take a good hard look at future leadership needs and define the skills and capacities to meet those needs. Design your strategy around the goal of moving your organization forward.

Succession planning begins the first day you hire an employee and continues when you invest in their professional aspirations and provide them with the tools to grow and develop. When staff have opportunities to practice in new knowledge areas, a stimulating work environment and the opportunity to continually build their portfolio of skills and knowledge, they will be less likely to look elsewhere for a challenge. Be prepared, and plan for nonprofit succession well before that knock on your door.


[1] Leadership Development: Five Things All Nonprofits Should Know, Stanford Social Innovation Review, James W. Shepard Jr., May 14, 2014

[2]  “The Wake Up Call”, 2018 Nonprofit Sector Leadership Report, Sustainable Philanthropy with Plymouth University, Dr. Adrian Sargeant and Harriet Day, 2018

[3] “The New Path Forward”, Creating Compelling Careers for Employees and Organizations, CEB, 2015