Succession Planning for Leadership Transitions – It’s Not Just About the Executive Director

Frank Abdale has worked on numerous succession planning and strategic planning projects for the Support Center, including the succession plan that led to our new Executive Director.   Frank is a proven strategist and facilitator, and the writer and editor of numerous publications, articles, and manuals. He is the co-author of “Practical Abundance: A Comprehensive Guide to Fundraising and Development for Nonprofits” and has taught strategic planning, fundraising and advocacy at the Support Center since 2009.

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Written by Frank Abdale

Succession planning can be challenging and emotional; it can also be inspiring and uplifting.  It begins with a look at the things board, staff and supporters love and admire about the current leadership, and the values the organization wants to perpetuate.  Succession planning builds on the past and present and looks ahead to where the fresh energy and vision of a new leader might take your organization.

Hopefully every organization has some kind of emergency succession plan.  This is basically an inventory of all the important file locations, passwords, contacts, contracts, policy numbers and other critical data.  It includes who will step in, or up, in the case of a sudden, unplanned loss of leadership. 

In the case of a planned executive transition, a thoughtful and thorough succession plan looks at the leadership qualities, management skills and values the organization wants in its next generation of leadership.  The process of identifying those attributes represents a rare opportunity to engage with all stakeholders and results in cataloguing the experience, background and traits to look for in candidates.  Even when there is a strong internal candidate, the process can identify where she or he might need additional support and training in order to succeed.  It also gives departing leaders an opportunity to think about their legacy and plan some next steps.

Consider too, that it is not just the ED at the center of succession planning.  The process of succession planning asks many critical questions:

  • Will the board remain stable during an executive transition?
  • How do term limits for officers and others align with the projected date of the ED’s departure?
  • Are there any senior staff or board members who are likely to leave around the same time?
  • If so, who will take on their roles?
  • Do we have a culture of developing board and staff leaders from within our ranks?
  • Who will take on short-term stewardship of the key relationships held by the current ED?
  • How will stewardship of key relationship be transferred to the new ED?
  • What fundraising and communications opportunities are to be found in honoring a departing ED and celebrating the arrival of a new one?
  • Is this an opportunity to rethink our structure, maybe explore a merger?
  • Should we plan on hiring an Interim ED who can give an unbiased assessment of the state of the organization before deciding on a new permanent ED?

The list goes on. 

It is often helpful to have an outside, consultant facilitate the process.  The Support Center can field a skilled and experienced transition expert who can keep discussion of these highly charged topics and related issues on neutral ground, have confidential conversations with all involved and keep the succession planning process on time and on track.  In the case of one client, the data collected by the transition consultant became the basis for a new round of strategic planning once the new executive director was on board. 


Additional Resources

The Support Center

Annie E. Casey Foundation

Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York

Succession Planning Toolkit –

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