PERSPECTIVE: Successful Succession Planning for Nonprofits

by Tom Wood The retirement party, it’s a familiar sight; we’ve all been to our fair share. Once you get past the cake, balloons, and bittersweet nostalgia you have to face the fact that you just lost a valued member of your management team. This is when many nonprofit organizations begin to address their succession planning. Even if it is only unspoken, there is a general consciousness that a retirement is coming, but when it comes to resignations there is usually a lack of any advanced noticed.

The effects of sudden turnover resonate strongest for nonprofit entities. For one, employees are driven by the mission and therefore tend to stay for a long time making them unwritten resources. In addition, everyone wears more than one hat so multiple aspects of the organization are affected. A few unplanned departures can have a great impact on multiple facets of the organization resulting in lost institutional knowledge. It also takes more time to replace a position as the skill set for many nonprofit organizations is program specific, which limits the pool of potential candidates.CT perspective

So when is the best time to start thinking about succession planning? Like everything else in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As cliché as it sounds, the key is to address succession planning before it ever becomes an issue. A process should be developed to identify and monitor management positions that are at risk. From there, you can take three simple steps to mitigate succession related issues: 1) update your procedures manual annually, 2) cross train staff, and 3) develop from within.

Every nonprofit has a handful of individuals who have been around forever. They are the ones who know everything. The first step to proper succession planning is to document what they do. It sounds simple, but how often does your organization update its employee handbook or procedures manual? Make sure that the manual is reviewed by the person actually performing the duties. Having a current procedures manual will make sure that institutional knowledge isn’t lost.

q1Once your procedures are up to date, start cross training your staff. Not only will it be helpful in the event of unforeseen turnover, but it is an important internal control. Cross training is a temporary solution, but it can buy you time to find the perfect candidate.

Nonprofits have mission specific programs which can make it difficult to find qualified replacements for program leaders. Often times, very specific job requirements including years of experience and advanced degrees limit the candidate pool. Now, you could hire an expensive headhunter who might come up with a handful of so-so replacements, but there is another option, albeit more long-term: hire from within. Identify potential leaders within your organization and then create a long term development plan. Unlike outside recruits, internal hires already understand the organization, fit in with the culture, and are passionate about the mission.

Senior management isn’t the only group that can benefit from succession planning. A healthy nonprofit is usually the result of an involved board of directors; a strong board takes time to develop and needs to be maintained. Typically, most nonprofit boards have a nominating or governance committee which are charged with finding and vetting future directors. Term limits and classes will keep the board fresh and prevent all the responsibility falling on a few individuals.

So the next time your nonprofit has a retirement party, enjoy a piece of cake and don’t worry because you’ll be ready.


Tom Wood is an audit manager with Whittlesey & Hadley, P.C.  He specializes in audits of nonprofit organizations.  Whittlesey & Hadley, P.C. is a leading, regional provider of accounting, financial, business and technology consulting services, headquartered in Hartford, with offices in Hamden, CT and Holyoke, MA.  

PERSPECTIVE commentaries by contributing writers appear each Sunday on Connecticut by the Numbers.

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