Succession Planning: Fostering Long-Term Success and Sustainability

by Chandra Storrusten

“Control your own destiny or someone else will.” – Jack Welch

Regardless of the size or mission of the non-profit organization, those wise words apply across the board. The success of most non-profits is built on the passion, motivation, and deep commitment to the organization’s mission and leadership by its staff and leaders. Changes in leadership are one of the most difficult and distracting challenges a non-profit will face and, although they are inevitable, organizations and their boards often ignore planning for these changes.

Below are five steps to increase the success of your succession planning efforts and foster long-term success and sustainability:

  1. Ensure Buy-In. Succession planning is generally ignored or delayed due to the fact that it takes uncomfortable conversations to address issues that often create anxiety, fear, and doubt. If an Executive Director raises the need for a succession plan, boards may jump to the conclusion that the Executive Director is getting ready to leave and they need to start planning for it. On the other hand, when a board raises the need, the Executive Director may assume that the board doesn’t feel he/she is meeting their goals and he/she should begin to look for a new position. This raises the clear need for trust between both parties and the understanding of the importance of succession planning prior to beginning the process. Anxiety, fear, and uncomfortable feelings are minimalized helping everyone buy-in to the process when succession planning is framed as a way to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of the organization to continue to fulfill its mission. This should align with the inherent reason each leader and board member is there (or they shouldn’t be there)…be the leaders.
  2. Assemble a Succession Planning Committee. The Executive Director and Board Chair should recruit a few additional board members and/or staff that have interest and/or experience in succession planning to form a committee. The committee will determine and review resources, guide the process, champion specific goals, assign tasks, and hold everyone accountable to the process and timeline.
  3. Define Objectives, Roles and Timeline. The most effective succession plans are tied to an organization’s strategic plan, mission and vision. Revisiting these items is a critical part of the process to help define the objectives desired during the process and the leadership requirements of those involved. Organizations should develop an Emergency Succession Plan (in the event of an unexpected executive departure – either permanently or for greater than three months) and a Defined Departure Succession Plan (for planned future retirements or permanent departures of executives). For the process to be efficient, collaboration is necessary between the Executive Director, board members, and key staff members. Defining roles and responsibilities and communicating them prior to the planning process will further help to alleviate anxiety across the organization. Lastly, define a reasonable timeline for development of the plans based on other initiatives and commitments. Consider using an Annual Board Retreat as the date to present the plan to the Board of Directors to keep momentum.
  4. Formulate a Leadership Development Plan. Developing a culture that cultivates leaders and talent at all levels of the organization is vital for non-profits to increase their service capacity and program effectiveness as well as talent attraction and retention, and ensure long-term stability and sustainability. Leaders that are developed internally also guarantee continuous execution of necessary operational, programmatic and administrative responsibilities. A leadership development plan formulated in conjunction with succession planning efforts promotes lower uncertainty and anxiety because each staff member knows the criteria they need to achieve in order to advance and there is confidence in the plan and the organization’s commitment to developing leaders.
  5. Communicate for Successful Implementation. Communication to all stakeholders is key during implementation and a communication plan should be developed that encourages two-way communication and reduces concerns about the future. The communication plan is vital in fostering an environment that encourages input from stakeholders, including staff, to help identify challenges, as well as successes. The succession and leadership development plans should be reinforced, assessed and updated during an organization’s annual strategic planning process.

Although succession planning can seem like a daunting task, it is becoming common for funders and donors to ask to review an organization’s succession plan when considering grant applications and large donations. In addition, when succession planning is framed as noted above, it becomes part of an organization’s continual strategic planning and talent management and development processes, fostering employee engagement and retention and organizational culture, as well as promoting an environment for leadership success.

Bottom Line: Succession planning is vital to ensure the long-term success and sustainability for your organization.

Chandra Storrusten is Co-Founder & Chief Value Creation Officer of Visible Value, as well as Chair of a Vistage International Chief Executive Peer Group. For more than 15 years she led succession-planning engagements for numerous organizations, fostering sustainable value creation and agility to allow organizations to capitalize on pivotal opportunities, increase capacity through the integration of best practices, and ensure they achieve their mission and the goals of their internal and external stakeholders. Chandra can be reached at or 919.533.2444.

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