How Nonprofits Thrive After Executive Directors Resign

back shot of a man seated at a table having a meeting with 3 other people

Let’s talk about succession. 

No, not the HBO show (which I highly recommend), rather succession planning for nonprofit organizations. Executive director (ED) successions can cause confusion, conflict, reduced productivity and, possibly, lead to additional resignations at an organization. But none of that needs to happen if an organization has a succession plan in place before the executive director leaves.

The fact that nonprofit EDs tend to spend several years at an organization makes it more challenging when they leave—the ED’s unique leadership style and vision has shaped much of the organization. Succession planning ensures the health of an organization during and after a leadership change. 

If your organization* is overdue for a succession plan, here’s a primer on the stages of succession planning (featuring gifs from HBO’s Succession):

*For current IPMF grantees: if this is a topic you’d like to further explore, email IPMF Program staff Nuala Cabral or Samíl Jimenez-Magdaleno to discuss capacity building options.

HBO succession gif of Siobhan and Logan

STEP 1. Set the stage for ED succession planning.

It’s the board’s (not the ED or staff) responsibility to develop a plan. The board can assign a new or existing committee to lead the succession planning. The board will need the ED’s input to develop the plan—i.e. keeping the ED position description updated and interviewing the ED about the functions and needs of the role. It helps to identify ahead of time the resources and time needed for the ED recruitment process. Having this estimate in mind prepares the board and staff to face the X number of months it will take to recruit a new executive director. 

HBO succession gif of Roman and Kendall

STEP 2. Focus on “how” and “what,” not “who.”

Nonprofit boards often falsely believe that a “succession plan” requires naming a successor. The purpose of a succession plan is not to select the ED’s “understudy.” Taking that route is ineffective, for example, if that #2 person decides to leave the organization instead of taking over as the new ED. Plus, the main purpose of a succession plan is to ensure an ED’s resignation doesn’t weaken the nonprofit’s day-to-day operations. Instead of focusing on who to make the unofficial backup ED, make sure to clarify back-up staff for key ED responsibilities. For example, if the ED is the point-of-contact for major donors, make sure that these donors are familiar with another staff or board member as a back-up contact. Each back-up person for a specific ED task should have access to, and familiarity with, the documents and people needed to complete an ED task in their absence.

HBO succession gif of Logan talking

STEP 3. Adopt a project timeline and maintain board engagement.

Creating a succession plan may take two to six months, depending on the frequency of board meetings and board experience with similar projects (e.g. strategic planning). A committee may lead the project, however, it’s important to maintain full board participation throughout the project—this helps prevent any barriers to the full board approving the plan. A way to engage the board is to ask them important questions such as:

  • Is the plan clear about the steps to take if the ED leaves the organization for any reason?
  • Does the plan identify the board and staff’s preferred option for interim leadership (i.e. is there a staff role that can take over as interim CEO)?

HBO succession gif of Tom and Greg

STEP 4. Adopt and disseminate the succession plan.

Once everyone is comfortable with the plan details and format—the board has had discussions about the plan and staff (especially the ED) have been looped in on the conversations—the succession plan can be put to a vote and formally approved. Copies of the plan should be placed in accessible locations, such as the board’s shared drive. The plan should be included as part of documents referenced during new board member orientations, so that incoming board members are clear about the plan that is in place.

Succession planning can help nonprofits avoid the “shock to the system” reaction caused by an ED departure. Change is a constant in every aspect of life and like in other parts of life, leadership change should be expected and welcomed as a great opportunity for organizational growth. 

See below for additional resources about how to approach succession planning (for practicals, we recommend the Lenfest Institute’s “News Executive Leadership Transition Guide”).

gif sources: imgur, gfycat, tenor, gifdb

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