Tools for nonprofit leaders: Succession planning in the not-for-profit world

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This article is the 10th in our Nonprofit Toolkit series. You can find past articles in our library which have dealt with how staff can support their board of directors; the strategic plan tool; policies and procedures; a communication plan tool; risk management; competency-based boards; creating a volunteer handbook; how to conduct your own member survey; and using templates. This month’s article deals with succession planning for both paid staff and elected volunteer leaders.

What would happen to your not-for-profit organization if the chief staff or chief volunteer leader were incapacitated and not able to serve for several months or forever? What about your accountant or perhaps your director of finance? What about your major event leaders (staff or volunteer)? What about your government relations team leaders? What about the staff person in charge of your golf tournament if it happened the day before the event? Even if you are fortunate enough to not experience such traumas, eventually all of these folks will complete their maximum term of office, retire, or move to greener pastures. They will have to be replaced. Getting fired is another scenario to consider; if your volunteer leader loses his/her job or a key member of your staff deserves to be dismissed, are you prepared?

These situations have occurred in not-for-profit organizations and there are lessons to learn from the experience of others. As part of your planning process you need to plan to replace key people if required to do so. It is called success planning.

Before we get into the how of succession planning, consider this. According to the HR Council, paid employment in Canada’s voluntary/nonprofit sector totals 1.2 million employees who make up 7.2% of the country’s paid workforce, involving more than 68,000 employers paying $22 billion in annual payroll. Voluntary sector leaders know that the sector is not competitive when it comes to wages and benefits compared to government and industry. The HR Council also reports that the state of the labour force in Canada is one of high employment rates, labour shortages, and the pending retirement of baby boomers, and that these realities are going to grow in scope. It's safe to predict that competition for employees and volunteers is going to get a lot stiffer in the next 10 to 15 years.

So how can you go about introducing succession planning in your organization? Here is a suggested list of steps to take now:

  1. Develop a list of key positions, volunteer and paid, who could disrupt the execution of your strategic plan and its components by their departure.
  2. Next, develop an inventory of skill sets required for each key position. Don’t just copy the skill set that the current volunteer or staff occupant possesses; seize the opportunity to aim high or make changes based on your organization’s vision.
  3. Identify current staff or volunteers who could step up to replace the vacancy, either on a temporary or long-term basis.
  4. Document sources of people with the required skills, again either on a temporary or long-term basis. There are people skilled in the not-for-profit sector who work on short-term contracts to fill in temporary needs on an “interim” basis to allow leaders time to fill the void(s).
  5. Document what information will need to be readily accessible to those choosing the successor and for the successor.

In a recently published article in Association™ magazine, Jack Shand, CAE, President of LeaderQuest Inc. the job experts™ offered the following examples of documentation that should always be up-to-date and available:

  1. Board of directors (list of directors; terms of reference; meeting schedule; briefing/orientation binders; committees of the board; minutes, etc.).
  2. Staff (names; titles; job descriptions; personnel policies; reporting relationships; contract personnel; performance appraisals; salaries; staff meetings, etc.).
  3. Organizational details (policies; organization chart; by-laws; strategic plan; business plan; annual budget; filing system; manuals for operating systems; key suppliers; contracts; official documents such as letters patent and leases).
  4. Comprehensive status and operating details regarding the key business lines or member services, such as major events (contracts, contacts, project timelines); publications; and advocacy.
  5. Financial (budget; signing authorities; financial reporting to the board; auditor and audit; banking and investment details).

Your organization needs to plan for staff retirements. In her article on succession planning and management posted on Charity, Theresa Howe, CHRP suggested that a simple starting point for the identification of succession needs is an organization chart that includes key staff and their expected retirement dates. Succession management also requires a clear view of the organization's unique and specific information. Such items include:

  • positions that may need to be filled
  • job and industry specific competencies/descriptions,
  • expected timeframe
  • assessment of internal talent and identification of gaps
  • creation of high potentials or talent pool through a variety of methods
  • development plans
  • ability to track and retain the talent pool
  • support for succession candidates
  • sourcing external candidates if necessary.

Your succession plan needs to be developed and also routinely reviewed and updated. So who should do this?

It depends on your leadership model. If your board/council works under a policy governance framework, your senior volunteer leaders need to plan how to replace the chief staff officer and, of course, their peers in key leadership positions. Staff leaders typically own the equally important role of identifying skills sets and competencies for staff succession planning.

As with all plans, your succession plan deserves champions who will support and promote its execution and implementation. Such champions should come in the form of key board members and the chief staff officer.

And what happens if one of your volunteer leaders wants to either conduct the search or apply for vacant positions? In her Ethics Q & A column, ethics consultant Jane Garthson explains the delicate steps that must be taken before this can be considered:

Plans are road maps; if you do not lose key leaders, you don’t need to take the trip. But you should have a detailed map - just in case!

Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the nonprofit association community. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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