Succession Planning: Preparing for the Inevitable

Every CEO or Executive Director will leave an organization at some point. Setting up a succession plan ahead of time will alleviate uncertainty, assure continuity of strategy and create a logical transition process.  

In today’s nonprofit environment, top leaders (executive directors, CEOs and presidents) view the role as a short-term tenure, maybe only two to three years. Organizations need to plan in advance for the inevitable search and transition process. Campbell & Company works with organizations and institutions from all sectors to facilitate the executive search process.  

“When an organization’s leader steps down, it always creates anxiety,” according to Kris McFeely, Campbell & Company Executive Search Consultant. “Having a transition plan in place in anticipation of the event can put staff and stakeholders at ease.” McFeely and another C&C consultant, Dan Nevez, recently discussed succession strategies at Managing Transition: Preparing for New Leadership, part of Campbell & Company’s national webinar series.

In fact, the absence of a plan often stirs anxiety, even if the leader shows no intention of leaving. Nevez says while working with an organization on a recent leader transition project, a board member confided, “We didn’t have a plan with the other board I was on. I was nervous all the time.” Stakeholders, including staff and donors, might harbor those same concerns, though silently. The preparation of a plan can allay such fears.

An emergency leadership plan

Every organization should, in advance, outline a plan to address any abrupt leadership changes. This should include a list of potential interim leaders,an updated CEO/executive director/president job description, and access to financial accounts and technology systems. Key stakeholders should be informed as quickly as possible before the event hits the media.Nonprofit succession planning And one spokesperson should be designated as a communication point person for the organization so that the messaging is consistent. This plan should be updated annually by the board.  

The search committee

Once a leader has announced plans to step down, the staff will be looking to the board almost immediately for a “what’s next” response. Having a process in place with clearly outlined steps will calm jitters and help build forward momentum. The first step is to assemble a search committee, often from the board but also sometimes with non-board representatives. A search chair will lead the process.

McFeely warns that board members, often used to recruitment in the for-profit world, may not understand the intricacies of nonprofit recruitment. “The decision to hire top people in business often is made by one or two key individuals. Not so in nonprofits. The nonprofit board must form a consensus around the selected individual. They must present a unified front to stakeholders.” This sometimes draws out the recruitment timetable to six months or longer, and search committee members should be aware of the investment in time.  

The search chair

Providing a framework for the search process is the responsibility of the search chair. There should be a structured system for interviewing and evaluating candidates based on the goals set forth by the board and the committee. “You’ll want to see how they solve problems and identify behavioral qualities that would hint at success or failure in the position,” Nevez says. Board members should receive a fairly detailed document that will guide their interviews.  

Internal candidates

It is not unusual for a staff person to express interest in the top position. McFeely advises not to neglect a complete recruitment search even with the presence of a strong internal candidate. “I always encourage clients to treat the staff member like any other candidate, holding them to the same rigorous evaluations as the other options,” she explains. “That way, if they are selected, they know they were the top candidate.” She also warns that board members who are interested in the position should resign immediately from the board to avoid sabotaging the process.  

The decision

After the discovery process, the search chair will then focus the board toward a decision consensus. The chair also respectfully notifies unsuccessful candidates. “At this level in an individual’s career, it is important to provide honest feedback on a decision not to hire,” advises Nevez.  


Once a selection has been made, the process of assimilating the successor, or onboarding, can take several forms. Sometimes there is a two-week overlap while the outgoing leader passes the reins to the successor. McFeely suggests identifying either a senior staff or board member, who will help with the assimilation and act as a sounding board during the first year of tenure.  

Leadership during a sabbatical

Events might introduce a short-term leadership opportunity, as nonprofits sometimes allow leaders to take one-year sabbaticals for field work or academic studies.

McFeely and Nevez suggest hiring a professional interim CEO who will provide stability to an organization in the leader’s absence. “It is a good opportunity to find an individual with specific skills that can be culled for a short-term strategy. If you know you’ll be implementing a new IT system, find someone with IT expertise,” McFeely suggests.

If there is a major campaign on the horizon, bring on a leader with strong fundraising success.

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