Succession Planning for Nonprofits

Updated June 01, 2023
Kevin McGrath
Written byKevin McGrath
Zachary Ace Aiuppa
Edited byZachary Ace Aiuppa
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Nonprofits are often guided by passionate leaders whose skills align with the organization's mission. When these types of leaders are in place and fulfilling their roles as executives or board members, things usually run smoothly. Problems occur when these same leaders leave, retire, become unable to perform their duties, or pass away.

These unexpected changes can cause chaos inside an organization. When done correctly, succession planning brings order to the chaos and provides a roadmap for moving forward. This article outlines succession plan basics, why they matter for nonprofits, and how to create your own succession plan in a few easy steps.

What Is Succession Planning?

Succession planning is common in the corporate world. It's a plan detailing what to do when an owner retires or dies. While nonprofits don't need to worry about the succession of ownership, they do need to identify and develop a plan to ensure leadership roles stay filled. A succession plan identifies what jobs are critical to an organization's success, and puts a plan in place to prepare other employees to take on leadership roles if they become vacant.

Why Does a Nonprofit Need a Succession Plan?

For a nonprofit, maintaining trust is vital to keeping supporters engaged and funding coming in. Leaving a key executive role vacant for too long might damage donor confidence and jeopardize funding.

Other significant issues your organization could face without a succession plan include:

  • Missed grant opportunities

  • Loss of institutional knowledge from experienced employees

  • Low employee morale due to internal power struggles

  • Risk of hiring a bad fit when forced to fill a critical role too quickly

A proper succession plan ensures that things continue running smoothly and allows your nonprofit to keep doing its vital work. Part of this plan is making leadership development and training commonplace rather than an afterthought.

How to Create a Succession Plan for Your Nonprofit

Proper succession planning starts long before there is a need for it. A nonprofit can use a well-executed succession plan to prepare for the inevitable departures of key staff members and help guide the hiring, training, and development process.

Below, we will outline a few key steps to create a succession plan for your nonprofit. Your planning, however, should not stop here. Be sure to make adjustments and focus on the areas that will significantly impact your organization.

1. Identify Which Positions You Need to Plan For

Every succession plan should be unique to the organization. To start, you'll need to identify which positions inside your organization need a succession plan. This should include:

  • Board members

  • Executive director

  • Development director

  • Major gifts officer

  • Other key staff members

Your plan's success will depend on clearly understanding and defining each of these positions' roles and responsibilities. Work with your current personnel to define and document job duties. As your plan progresses, list the following details:


Positions should include a detailed list of all leadership positions critical to your nonprofit's ability to function.


Incumbents are the individuals who currently fill these positions. Make note if any are at a higher risk of leaving your organization.


Have two or three qualified candidates in place to fill vacant positions. Focus on developing internal candidates, but make plans to consider external candidates as well.


Your plan should include your internal candidates' readiness to step into the role if and when they are needed. This should be updated and reviewed regularly.

2. Begin to Document Emergency & Planned Departure Plans

A succession plan can take on many forms depending on the size and age of your organization. It can be a simple spreadsheet, or you may need to draft lengthier documents for more complex plans. Whatever way you document it, be sure to include two versions — one for emergencies and one for planned departures.

Emergency departure

Emergency plans consider worst-case scenarios — the quick and unexpected departures of key staff members due to illness, termination, resignation, or death. Your plan should detail possible successors and designate staff members who could temporarily divide essential responsibilities until the organization can find a permanent replacement. Because these events are unexpected, an emergency departure plan will need to be implemented quickly to be effective.

Planned departures

Planned departures are expected and allow more time to plan ahead. Retirements and planned sabbaticals are common cases. Your nonprofit could have years to implement a succession plan that allows the right person to gradually take on the responsibilities of the soon-to-be-vacant position.

3. Get Internal Buy-In & Communicate Your Plan

After your plan is documented and adequately vetted by your nonprofit's leadership, you should begin communicating it throughout the organization. Having your entire team on board with the plan will be crucial to its successful implementation.

Forming a committee may be appropriate to help gain internal buy-in and ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in case of an emergency departure. Ensuring staff is aligned and bought into your vision will help ensure seamless transitions and nurture a culture focused on your organization's success.

4. Continually Train & Develop Talent for Future Transitions

Every succession plan should include the ways your nonprofit will continue to train and develop staff members to transition into future positions. This should be an ongoing effort, including identifying, training, and preparing the right people to take on key roles when the time is right.

Promoting a qualified candidate from within the organization can help ensure a good culture fit to fill a vacant position, but don't exclude external candidates completely. Your plan should consider how training and your organization's culture will help transition an outsider into the role.

Don't Wait to Create Your Succession Plan

Every nonprofit, no matter the size, needs a succession plan in place. This is a necessary step to ensure your nonprofit will continue to fulfill its mission even in the event of loss of leadership. With the right succession plan, your nonprofit will be better prepared for the future and can avoid the impact of an untimely illness or death.

Succession planning doesn't have to be complicated, and you can start your plan today using the tips above. Take the opportunity to focus on your staff's development to ensure a healthy, happy culture within your organization.

Get More Nonprofit Advice & Services

If you recently started a nonprofit, then Swyft Filings has the tips and tricks you need to continue to grow and make an impact. Our Learning Center is filled with hundreds of articles from nonprofit experts that can help your organization succeed. If you still have not made your nonprofit idea official, then Swyft Filings can help you start. Check out our Incorporation Wizard to learn how to incorporate your nonprofit online today in as few as 10 minutes!

Originally published on October 24, 2022, and last edited on June 01, 2023.

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