Recently, we have found ourselves discussing succession planning with several clients.  So much so, it made us think perhaps we should write about it.

Succession planning and, relatedly, talent development, are often seen as things that “only rich corporations do.”  That’s wrong.  Succession planning and talent development are essential for all organizations regardless of size or profit/nonprofit status.  The term itself is also not well understood.

Let’s start with the basics.  Succession Planning is a business strategy that helps organizations identify and develop employees to fill key roles when those roles are vacated due to the incumbents leaving, retiring, or passing away. The goal is to ensure that the organization can continue to run smoothly without interruption. Succession planning is relevant to all companies, regardless of size or sector.

Three forms of succession planning:

  1. Strategic Talent Development:  This is the process of grooming junior employees and leaders in the organization so they are ready to be promoted into more senior roles when opportunities present themselves.
  2. Departure-Defined Succession Planning:  Through this process, a senior leader identifies their desire to leave the organization, and works with other leaders and/or the board of directors to identify their replacement. The incumbent usually works with their successor to ensure a smooth transition.
  3. Emergency Succession Planning: Occurs when a leader suddenly departs an organization without a defined successor, creating a critical vacancy and, usually, an organizational crisis.

Strategic Talent Development

The goal of strategic talent development is to prevent the need for emergency succession planning. CEOs and Executive Directors have a fiduciary responsibility to their organizations to have a defined succession plan in place for all critical roles, including their own. Actually, especially their own.

Emergency Succession

The conversations we most commonly have fall into two categories. The first conversation – and, sadly, the most common – has been in the case of an emergency succession plan. This occurs when a role has been vacated by an individual who is a “single point of failure.” Nonprofits have an unfortunate tendency to create single points of failure. When this type of vacancy occurs, the organization finds itself scrambling to reassign duties or find an interim replacement.

A sidebar comment: The advantage of working with a firm like OFS to conduct a search is that we can move fast to fill the open position, sometimes eliminating the need for interim leadership. However, we also see situations arise where professional interims can ensure a smooth transition in an emergency succession. Interims can give the organization time to consider the right attributes for the replacement and, in many cases, diagnose problems or opportunities by bringing a fresh set of eyes to the role. Because of this, we also provide interim support to clients.

Departure Defined Succession

The second conversation is the departure defined succession plan, specifically for executive directors and CEOs. Burnout is real, especially at the top.  Many responsible leaders are ready to go, and are speaking with us about how to develop and execute a transition that builds momentum for the organization, rather than slows it down.

The Process

Broadly the succession planning process begins with good job descriptions.  For every key role, the organization needs to have a sound assessment of what the job entails, and what the key success factors are. In conjunction with this, there should be an objective assessment of the incumbent’s successes and challenges in that role. This is seldom something a nonprofit has the bandwidth to accomplish, and working with a consultant is the best way to ensure it is done accurately, rapidly and objectively.

Second, for every critical role, the organization should have a list of potential recruits. Internally, the organization should be focused on grooming their talent to grow into those roles. But, also, responsible organizations should be looking externally for talent at all times. As a rule of thumb, leadership succession in most well-run organizations is 80% internal succession and 20% external recruits.

Lastly, this needs to be institutionalized. For every organization I have led, at the end of my first thirty days in the role, I handed my board chair a sealed letter with emergency succession instructions in it. That plan was updated every year with my performance review, and as part of the board chair handoff. I also required the same thing of all the critical leaders on my staff.

Fundamentally, every critical leader in the organization must be able to answer the question “Who would you recommend as your backfill?” It is a basic fiduciary duty to the organization. And, for lower level leaders, if they cannot answer it, they are, essentially, unpromotable.

If you have questions about building a succession planning process or, worse, find yourself in an emergency succession situation, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.


  • D.M. Paule

    Dave Paule is an experienced chief executive officer, fundraiser, marketer, writer and educator. He specializes in jumpstarting stagnant operations, global business turn-arounds, and building green-field organizations. Dave is Principal & Managing Director at Our Fundraising Search and is a member of the faculty of Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson School of Business.