Succession Planning Part 1: Unpacking Succession Planning

In Succession by Karen Buck


That’s how many nonprofit executives plan to leave their positions sometime in the next four years. 34% plan to leave sometime in the next two years. Statistics like this—from CompassPoint’s Daring to Lead 2011 report—explain why so many clients have been asking us about succession planning in the past few years.

Succession planning is a term that means different things to different people. Succession plans usually fall into one of three categories:

  • Emergency succession plans
  • Designated succession plans
  • Departure-defined plans

Emergency succession plans are just that—plans created proactively to help an organization cope with a sudden or unexpected loss of leadership. Designated succession plans focus on the leadership development of key individuals, often using grooming, skill-building, and mentoring as a way to increase the “bench depth” of organizational leadership. Departure-defined plans organize multiple aspects of a leadership transition where the timeline is well-defined, such as when an executive director announces her intention to retire in a year or two.

Succession planning is considered a best practice of organizational management for a reason, even though it often shines a light on uncomfortable realities (yes, that wonderful executive director or board chair you depend on will leave you one day!). One way to get past that discomfort is to approach succession planning within the context of the organization, its goals, and its mission. This can reframe the conversation from:

“We’ll never find anyone like Joe. I don’t even want to think about what we’ll do when he retires. “


“What are the skills, abilities, and experience we need to have within our leadership team to accomplish our goals over the next few years?”

See, it’s not about Joe. It’s about what the organization needs from its leaders in order to be successful and make an impact. And here’s a big hint: what the organization needs in the future may be pretty different from what its current leaders have to offer.