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Elements of a Good Nonprofit Leader Succession Plan

By: Eileen Morgan Johnson Source: Center Collection
Published: January 2007
A good nonprofit leader succession plan has several elements, including involving the current leader and board in designing the plan. Find out more on what to address.
The current executive director (ED) and board should be involved in succession planning. Others—perhaps past board members, senior volunteers or even a particular funder or advisor—also may participate. Succession planning for the executive director may involve the head of human resources and senior development, membership and program staff. A consultant experienced in executive director recruitment may be part of the planning team as well.

The succession plan should:

  • Identify what ED related duties or responsibilities will need to be carried out if the position is vacant;
  • Address whether an interim ED will be put in place, or if the duties and responsibilities will be filled by a number of people;
  • Identify who (by position title, not name) in the organization will fill each of those duties or responsibilities during an interim period without an ED;
  • Establish a timetable for filling the ED position;
  • Review the job description, roles and responsibilities of the ED and determine if they are appropriate for the current and future needs of the organization; and
  • Determine who will be responsible for identifying, recruiting, interviewing and selecting the replacement ED.
The succession plan should always be approved by the board. If an ED is in place, she should be given the opportunity to review and comment on the plan. Depending on the organization’s culture, it may not be necessary for the current ED to approve the succession plan, although it will be more successful if the ED not only approves of it but also actively supports it.

Ideally, the succession plan will not be a stop-gap measure but will involve identifying, recruiting, training and mentoring a successor for the ED so that someone is always standing behind the ED, ready to assume the reins of leadership if that individual leaves suddenly or is temporarily unavailable.

It may take several years for an organization to get to the position of having a succession plan articulated, approved by the board and in place with an identified successor waiting in the wings. The first step—acknowledging the need for a succession plan—is often the hardest. Once that step is taken, the organization can move forward and plan for the future.

Author: Eileen Morgan Johnson is an attorney at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Washington, DC. She can be reached at 202-659-6780 or

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