Getting Ready to Go

I was the Vice President of Programs at The Denver Foundation for many years.  I vividly remember a meeting at the Foundation, probably about 10-11 years ago, at which a grant review committee member asked a question regarding the long-time tenure of a nonprofit organization’s executive director. It went something like this:  “Susan has been in the position for 23 years. She’s obviously a leader with a lot of influence and relationships. What will they do when she leaves? Does the organization have a succession plan in place?” As I recall, my colleagues and I looked at each other in bewilderment. A succession plan? What was that and why would a nonprofit have one?

In the ensuing years, the nonprofit sector’s level of awareness regarding succession planning has increased substantially — it is now seen as a “best practice” in the field.  While it differs from what might happen in the business world, where succession planning often includes the identification and development of a specific person as the CEO’s successor, the reason for doing it is the same:  to ensure that when a leadership transition occurs, it will be as smooth as possible. 

Leadership transitions are inevitable, some of them foreseen, some unexpected. Below is a checklist, excerpted from Building Leaderful Organizations: Succession Planning for Nonprofits, which your organization can use to create a “succession plan” or “capacity building plan” that will identify gaps and prioritize a timeline for filling those gaps.

For more discussion on this topic, attend my session, The Dynamic Duo: Succession Planning and Executive Transitions, at the Colorado Nonprofit Association’s 2012 Fall Conference on Tuesday, October 16, 1:15-2:45 p.m.  There will be great information for you to use now, and an opportunity to hear from three nonprofit executive directors on their experiences with transitions. Go to their website for more info. I hope to see you there!

A Succession Readiness Checklist

A strategic plan is in place with goals and objectives for the near term (up to three years), including objectives for leadership talent development.

The board evaluates the executive director annually on general performance and achievement of strategic goals.

The board, based on its annual self-evaluation, is satisfactorily performing its major governance jobs—financial oversight, executive support and oversight, policy development and strategic planning.

The executive’s direct reports, based on annual evaluations, are judged as solidly skilled for their positions.

The top management cohort, as a high performing team:

  •  Has a solid team culture in place in which members support one another and can reach decisions as a group efficiently and harmoniously;
  • Shares leadership of the organization with the executive in having significant input to all major agency decisions;
  • Can lead the organization in the absence of the executive; and
  • Has authority to make and carry out decisions within their respective areas of responsiblility.

Another staff person or board member shares important external relationships (major donors, funders, community leaders) maintained by the executive.

A financial reserve is in place with a minimum of three months’ operating capital.

Financial systems meet industry standards. Financial reports are up to date and provide the data needed by the board and senior managers responsible for the agency’s financial strength and viability.

Operational manuals exist for key administrative systems and are easily accessible and up to date.

Top program staff members have documented their key activities in writing and have identified another staff person who can carry their duties in an emergency.


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Fall 2012


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