Succession planning is an important activity for every nonprofit organization. It’s not a matter of if, but when you’ll need a plan. Prior planning can help determine whether the transition will be seamless and successful or risk your organization’s future.

You can’t draft a plan overnight, and the sooner you develop one, the better prepared your organization will be for a leadership transition. Let’s look at some things to consider when creating a succession plan.

Include the correct employees

Don’t limit succession planning to the executive director (ED) position. Your plan should include every employee who’s considered indispensable and difficult to replace due to experience, institutional knowledge or other characteristics. Whose departure would have the most significant consequences for your organization and its strategic plans?

When you look at it that way, you can see that succession planning often should be broader than first considered. In addition to the ED, you might need to develop plans for high-level staff (for example, the development director) and even board members.

Define job qualifications

This step calls for more than simply reviewing or updating job descriptions. It can be a good time to examine priorities and realign some job responsibilities. This will ensure that successors have the requisite qualifications to carry out your organization’s short- and long-term strategic plans and goals, which their job descriptions might not reflect.

HR experts emphasize that succession planning should take a forward-looking perspective. The current jobholder’s experience and qualifications are only a starting point. What worked for the last 10 or 15 years might not be enough for the next 15 or 20.

Identify in-house candidates

When the time comes, many organizations publicize open positions and invite external candidates to apply. However, it’s easier (and often advantageous) to groom internal candidates before the need arises. To do so, you’ll want to identify your “high potential” (HiPo) employees — those with the ambition, motivation and ability to move up substantially in your organization.

Assess your staff using performance evaluations, discussions about career plans and other tools to determine who can assume greater responsibility now, in a year or in several years. You may discover HiPos in lower-ranking positions, so look beyond the director or manager level.

Implement action plans

Once you’ve identified potential internal candidates, it’s time to develop individual plans for each to follow. Consider your organization’s needs and plans, as well as each candidate’s personality and learning style.

An action plan should include multiple components, such as job shadowing. This will give you a good sense of how a person would fill the position under consideration. It also can provide opportunities such as leadership roles on special projects, training, and mentoring and coaching. Share your vision for the person’s future to ensure common goals. You can update action plans as your organization and employees’ needs evolve.

If such an action plan seems like overkill, understand that it’ll prepare candidates in a way that makes futures transitions less rocky and risky. Formal development plans also are likely to boost your recruitment and retention. But avoid leaving HiPos in holding patterns. If they don’t receive timely promotions or other growth opportunities, they may pack up their skills and qualifications and leave.

Share the details

Succession planning isn’t something to keep under wraps. You won’t receive the recruitment and retention benefits if potential and existing staffers don’t know you have formal plans for nurturing talent. You’ll also want to share the plan’s existence with stakeholders, such as grant makers and major donors. They’ll appreciate the assurance that you’re prepared and are unlikely to end up knocked off course by a significant departure.

Avoid interruption

Early succession planning not only makes for a smoother transfer of responsibility, but might also enable leaders to spot issues that need to be cleared up before the transition. A leader’s departure doesn’t have to be negative. Leadership succession can, in fact, result in positive press and higher donations. Contact us for help developing a comprehensive succession plan.

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