Nothing Succeeds Like Succession: Succession planning for not-for-profits

Not-for-profits and community groups rely on unusual reserves of passion and commitment, and this makes them particularly vulnerable to the sudden departure of key people. Your organisation needs to think about this issue in advance and have plans, procedures and understandings in place to manage this.

Why Succession?

The Board; changes

Board members should turn over; if they don't, and if your Board has been much the same for several years, there are questions to be asked. Are the members staying because you can't get new members, or because you can't muster the courage to ask the others to leave? Longstanding Boards tend to stagnate, or at least to call to mind too readily the reasons not to do something new. Times and contexts and environments change, and personnel need to change with them. Many Boards have recognised these facts by inserting in the constitution a requirement that a person can only serve on the Board (or, in some cases, serve as officebearers) for a limited number of terms. If you haven't got such a provision, it's worth considering whether you ought to.

If you have a term limit, people move off because they have to. If you don't, people can still move off when they want to. In either case, you have to be ready to deal with the changes. Leaving it all to the last minute can give you a Board that lacks the necessary skills, motivation and knowledge to lead the organisation effectively.

Members should discuss well ahead of time the particular capabilities the Board needs.

The Staff; changes

At the top, the Board has to be in touch with the career plans of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Assuming that the Board is in general satisfied with the CEO's performance, you will need to know how long they plan on staying - and, of course, how long you want them to stay. CEOs go stale, too, as well as Boards. If that's what your organisation thinks then it's best to set a term at the beginning - if a Board wants to move the CEO on and they don't want to go there's a potential source of disunity, lack of focus, even chaos.

There may well be an heir-apparent, a Deputy who's ready to step up. The Board may or may not want an in-house appointment - it's only half a change - but they need to be aware of the situation, and aware of the risks if there isn't consensus.

Be prepared; there's always the possibility of a crisis, or an accident, or a death.

CEOs themselves have to make the same decisions about the staff they manage. How likely is the staff member to stay (how hard would it be for them to get another job)? How likely is it that they would leave without warning? How long in that job is too long? How easy is it going to be to fill that slot?

The Donors; changes

Donors are not guaranteed for life. If you're relying heavily on a single donor or a single source of funds, you should be looking for the source of funds that will take their place when they, too, drop out. Ideally, sustainable fundraising means that your organisation needs not only a number of different donors but a number of separate and different income streams - donors, sponsorship, sales, grants, and membership.

The Process

Whether you're dealing with your Board, or your staff, or your volunteers,
  • you need to ensure that valuable corporate and organisational information is passed on to newer members.
  • you need a systematic method of recruitment for new people.
  • you need to manage the induction of those new people.


One of the biggest problems facing community groups is ensuring that the loss of one key board or committee or staff member doesn't mean the loss of all the organisational and operational knowledge they held.

The best way to ensure that doesn't happen is to document as much information as possible. Documentation should, of course, include detailed position statements for all major staff positions, and for all Board committees. Filing systems should be useable and complete. Many groups have extensively documented rules and guidelines about the filing of documents and no rules whatsoever on what computer files are kept where; this is very, very wrong. Computer networks should be indexed, and any passwords should be centrally listed.

Alarm bells should start ringing when everybody in an organisation has to go and queue up at the desk of a particular person with the arcane knowledge of how to run the computer network, or how to find files in the system, or how to get grants out of the Foundations. That knowledge is obviously necessary, and it should be more widely held.

This is particularly dangerous if the person concerned is at the top of the organisation. When a Board member or a senior staff member is known to be leaving, a real effort must be made to extract their knowledge - their methods, their contacts, their procedures, their institutional memory.


Not-for-profit Boards have a rather harder task recruiting leaders than do the average business. Directors of a mining company tend to move in mining circles and talk mining with their colleagues, while Board members for a homeless shelter don't generally move in circles that include either homeless people or charity staff. This makes it harder to draw up a list of names.
Recruitment discussions should start as early as a year before positions open, because;
  • good people are usually busy and often don't want to commit immediately (or can't).
  • good or bad, the recruitment process is going to take three months and the successful candidate will probably need several month's notice.


As the recruitment process is inevitably slow, and if the retirement or departure process may be any length from several years to one heart-stopping second, there will be a need to set up processes for interim management by stand-in executives for however long the gap is. Again, having these ready in advance can be crucial in maintaining the stability, or even the survival, of an organisation. Does your organisation have a formal plan for continuous and uninterrupted operation if something should happen to your CEO?


New appointees, Board or senior staff, need documentation, mentoring, and feedback. These should be standard elements of the recruitment process at all levels.
Prepare a well-organised folder of materials to give background, context and overall positioning of the organisation. This should include all or most of the following as appropriate:
  •  Mission statement
  •  Constitution and/or Rules
  •  Strategic Plan
  •  Policy Manual
  •  Minutes of Board meetings for the past year
  •  Annual Report
  •  Auditor's Report
  •  A brief summary of programs (if the Annual Report doesn't have one)
  •  A brief summary of sources of donations and grants (if the Annual Report doesn't have one)
  •  Current year budget
  •  Addresses and telephone numbers of Board Officers and members
  •  A list of Committees, their terms of reference, their Chairs and their members. If there are several committees, include a chart showing how they fit together
  •  Copies of the newsletters for the current year
  •  The Association's current brochures and flyers
  •  Recent relevant media clippings
Spend some time with the new member going through the orientation pack, answering any questions they may have. Assign them someone who knows the score as a mentor.

The Board; process

Only very large organisations will need a standing succession committee; for most of us it will be sufficient to set up an ad hoc group to review, revise and document succession procedures and to look a few years ahead at likely occasions. The committee can
  •  review the current Board, assessing what if anything is missing.
  •  ensure there is an orientation and screening process in place for new members.
  •  prepare the Board member information pack detailing the organisation's vital statistics, goals, values, mission, etc. for incoming members.
  •  identify the qualities required in the next round of appointments.
  •  monitor any changes in the organisation that might need changes in the Board.
  •  search widely and constantly.
  •  identify potential candidates.
After the first year it may only be necessary to meet every year to check that all is in order and in readiness and to update the list of potential candidates. The ad hoc committee can then be called together when an upcoming vacancy is flagged, and can
  •  seek individuals with the skills or qualities needed to achieve your mission.
  •  make candidates aware of exactly what their role will entail and how much commitment will be required if they become a board member.
  •  invite potential Board members to meetings.
  •  keep existing board members updated on any developments.
As well as having a rough timetable for the needs of the Board, you should also have a timetable for the needs of prospective Board members. You want to line up people who are at a period of their lives when they have time (and resources) to devote to your cause. If they say it isn't a good time, find out when would be a good time - two, three, five years down the track, perhaps - and come back then.
Mind you, the Committee can't do all the job by itself. It's also the responsibility of all board members to help the committee recruit the specific skill sets required.

The Staff; process

Consider an ad hoc Search Committee or to analyse the organisation's needs and look for a new CEO when necessary. The Committee's tasks would include
  •  consulting widely on organisational needs
  •  recommending selection guidelines and a search process to the Board.
  •  assessing applications and recommending an appointment (or developing a shortlist of candidates to be evaluated by the whole board).
The appointment of a new Board chair or CEO should be the occasion of revitalisation, review and celebration, rather than wailing and gnashing of teeth as the machinery starts grinding to a halt. Good succession procedures can ensure good things happen.