A big thank you to Peer Reviewer and Executive Director of Champions for Children, Inc. Amy Haile for this guest post!

Few nonprofit organizations are prepared for the transition of executive leadership that is coming and the impact it will have on their mission. 

Every time a nonprofit has a transition at the CEO level, this shift in leadership impacts the organization’s financial stability, strategic direction, and employee engagement. But a 2017 survey found that only 27% of nonprofit organizations have a succession plan. Knowing the impact of executive transition on the ability of the organization to maintain a focus on delivering services to meet its mission, the Council on Accreditation (COA) requires a succession plan as evidence for its Governance 5.04 Standard: to ensure continuity during transitions in leadership, the organization maintains succession planning procedures and a succession plan

As an Executive Director, COA Peer Reviewer, and a doctorate student of public health, I set out on a journey to seek solutions that would help nonprofit organizations bridge the gap to create and sustain their succession planning process.  For this study I interviewed 18 community-based nonprofit organization chief executives to gather insights into the barriers and solutions to succession planning.  

CEO interview results

One of the first observations emerging from the interviews was the shared belief that a nonprofit organization’s current CEO has a responsibility of putting the greater good of the organization and its mission in front of the needs of the individual. For example, there was conversation regarding the need for a resigning CEO to provide extended notice of no less than six months, with a year preferable and two years ideal. It was opined that this length of notice was required to sufficiently prepare the organization for the transition and not believed to be burdensome in the event of a CEO’s retirement. However, many interviewed CEOs noted this type of notice would be unlikely for a CEO seeking another position.  

There was universal agreement from the interviewed CEOs that succession planning is more than planning the replacement of the CEO position. It is about other key positions and building a leadership legacy with leader development within the organization. This theme is about being intentional and the CEO creating opportunities for new leaders to emerge within the organization as well as building external relationships beyond the CEO with the community of funders, partners, donors, as well as local, state, and national organizations. Leadership development comes outside the envelope of ‘management’ and ‘supervision.’ It is about creating and encouraging employees to accept stretch assignments. Several interviewed CEOs saw these types of project-based assignments as a mechanism to create bridges for more employees to be visible within the organization as emerging leaders and an opportunity to address equity. 

A guidebook for best practices

This study culminated in the creation of a ‘Guidebook to Succession Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A quick start framework to start and sustain succession planning.’  This guidebook contains many of the suggested elements outlined in Governance 5.04, such as: 

  1. Identifying the critical positions within the organization and their key leadership and management functions. 
  2. Describing under what conditions interim authority can be delegated for those positions, including unexpected leadership disruptions and planned departures, and the limitations of that authority. 
  3. Outlining to whom various leadership and management functions will be delegated. 
  4. Delineating the governing body and staff responsibilities as they relate to transition planning. 
  5. Creating a plan for how succession planning and leadership transitions will be communicated to the governing body, staff, and other relevant stakeholders; and 
  6. Implementing mechanics that assess readiness to assume leadership positions and for providing training, mentorship, and other leadership development opportunities to support readiness. 

Reviewed by nonprofit leaders, this Guidebook describes succession planning as an iterative process and for leaders to expect the plan to mature with reflection and use. To help begin a pathway forward, the guidebook establishes a three-phase approach: start with emergency planning, adopt a framework for leader development, and establish regular conversations regarding succession planning with organization leadership- including the concept of ‘legacy planning’.

The Guidebook provides a brief background with succession planning based on a thorough literature review, guiding principles based on the themes from this research project, and strategies on how to make the plan work. Woven throughout the guidebook are links and titles of other tools, further learning opportunities, and templates to ease the journey. Finally, the guidebook concludes with a sample plan.

Through a partnership with the Nonprofit Leadership Center (nlctb.org), this Guidebook is included in their Resource page and is available via a PDF downloaded file here.


Boardsource. (2017). Leading with intent: 2017 national index of nonprofit board practices [PDF file]. Retrieved June 22, 2019, from https://leadingwithintent.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/LWI-2017.pdf?&__hstc=98438528.6d8781303100e141f38fe0ae44711c9b.1561084719570.1561084719570.1561235983673.2&__hssc=98438528.1.1561235983673&__hsfp=4273204199   

Froelich, K., McKee, G., & Rathge, R. (2011). Succession planning in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 22(1), 3–20. https://doi.org/10.1002/nml.20037’ 

Giambatista, R. C., Rowe, W. G., & Riaz, S. (2005). Nothing succeeds like succession: A critical review of leader succession literature since 1994. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(6), 963–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.09.005 

Schepker, D. J., Kim, Y., Patel, P. C., Thatcher, S. M. B., & Campion, M. C. (2017). CEO succession, strategic change, and post-succession performance: A meta-analysis. The Leadership Quarterly, 28(6), 701–720. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2017.03.001 

Amy Haile

Amy Haile is the Executive Director of Champions for Children, Inc., the Tampa Bay region’s leading agency focused on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, which is accomplished through evidence-based family education programs that promote positive parenting and child development. Amy blends 30 years of private and public service experience and is completing a Doctor of Public Health degree from the University of South Florida, where she has focused her research on succession planning in nonprofit organizations. Her role as a Peer Reviewer allows her to witness how other family-serving organizations are innovating and implementing best practices across the country.

A big thank you to Jennifer Flowers of Accreditation Guru for this guest post!

As an organization evolves, it will inevitably face changes in leadership. While many of these transitions are anticipated, as when additional leadership roles are established or when a leader retires, other times the agency faces the dilemma of filling an unexpected opening. The key to making any leadership transition a seamless process for staff and clients alike is to develop a thoughtful succession plan that will guide decisions when the need arises. Here, we offer fundamental succession planning tips that can help your organization to Prepare for Greatness!™ 

Why participate in succession planning?

Succession planning should be proactively and thoroughly analyzed, planned for, and reviewed, in the same manner that an organization does so for budgeting, daily operations, and strategic planning, among others. While there are many motivating factors for an agency to participate in succession planning, two key elements at the forefront are to:

  1. Ensure Organizational Sustainability– First and foremost, having a well-developed, formal succession plan supports organizational sustainability, while preserving the continuous coverage of duties critical to an agency’s continuing operations.
  2. Increase Transition Success – Thoughtfully considering succession possibilities will lead to smoother transitions. The executive director or CEO serves as the direct line of communication between the board of directors and agency personnel; he or she is responsible for providing the leadership and guidance to help the organization meet its strategic and operational goals and fulfil its mission. He or she also provides an understanding of the intentions and policies of the board of directors by informing and guiding senior staff leadership, administrative functions, and operational staff in the daily work of the organization. It is important to ensure a continuity of this leadership in the event of unplanned and unexpected changes, as well as during planned changes due to termination, resignation, or retirement of top leadership, including the executive director or CEO.

According to The Bridgespan Group, succession planning remains the number one organizational concern expressed by nonprofit boards and executive leadership. Additionally, BoardSource recently reported that only 34 percent of nonprofits surveyed report that they have a written succession plan in place – yet, half of all CEOs intend to leave their positions within the next five years.  

Key succession planning considerations

Communicate and keep communicating

Communication is essential. Communication means transparency. Thoughtful and timely communication before, during, and after any leadership transition will go a long way in supporting the success of a new leader and the organization – keeping the focus squarely on fulfilling its mission of serving others.

Planning tips for leadership transitions

Who is responsible for planning for leadership transitions?

Generally, a board of directors is responsible for initiating a succession plan for an executive director or CEO. The board must understand that succession planning is a critical component for ensuring the short and long-term sustainability of an organization and must be considered a proactive risk management strategy. Succession plans should be carefully reviewed on an annual basis. 

The human factor

Succession planning discussions often bring apprehension to many within the organization. Those in leadership roles may see this as a sign that their performance is lacking or signals that they are considering leaving the organization, while staff may misinterpret planning as an internal power struggle, among others. Regardless of the concerns that surface, it is paramount to unambiguously clarify that leadership is simply prioritizing the agency’s future sustainability and the needs of the community it serves. The ideal time to conduct such planning is while there are no transitions taking place, allowing for greater focus of planning without additional pressure.

Other questions to consider

Assigning an interim leader

Changes in leadership are inevitable, including those that are unplanned and immediate, as when an executive director is no longer able to fulfil his or her responsibility and the position is vacated. Often, the board president will work closely with the agency’s executive leadership team to identify a potential temporary replacement and offer this recommendation to the full board of directors for approval. The board will meet with the candidate, determine his or her ability to fulfil the role, and swiftly act to appoint the candidate to this interim role, as appropriate.

Following the appointment of the interim leader:

Soon after, the executive committee should meet to determine:

Selection process for new agency head with advanced notice

When an agency head provides proper notice of intent to resign from his or her position, an official transition team should be assigned to conduct a formal search for a new executive director or CEO. The committee should include board members, senior staff representatives, and other relevant stakeholders associated with the organization. 

The committee should consider the following when conducting its search:

Do not underestimate the power of time

It is not unusual for the head of an organization to give upwards of two years notice of his or her planned departure. However, this announcement can mistakenly be met with a “we have plenty of time” response from those involved in filling the future position. Procrastinating to fill what is arguably the most critical leadership role in the agency will often lead to unnecessary confusion and disruption throughout all levels of the agency. 

While the future is not easily predicted, taking advantage of all the time an organization is given to fill key leadership roles will not only allow the search committee to make intentional, strategic choices, those who are served by the agency will benefit, as well. Through a well-executed plan, an agency ensures that the transition is a time of focused, organized, and thought-out change. After all, uninterrupted mission fulfillment is at the forefront of every public service agency. 

The views, information and opinions expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Accreditation (COA). COA invites guest authors to contribute to the COA blog due to COA’s confidence in their knowledge on the subject matter and their expertise in their chosen field.

Jennifer Flowers

Jennifer Flowers, Founder and CEO of Accreditation Guru, is an experienced accreditation consultant and has dedicated her career to the areas of accreditation and nonprofit management. Her 20+ years of accreditation experience includes serving as Director of Volunteer Services and Accreditation Commission at COA, as well as working with a variety of nonprofits in the education, health care, religious and social service sectors. Her background gives her an intimate knowledge of what Peer Reviewers look for during an onsite survey and what Commissioners need to make an informed accreditation decision. 

Prior to founding Accreditation Guru, Inc. in 2009, Jennifer has held key management positions in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. She earned her B.A. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley and holds an MBA in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management. Jennifer is also certified in Nonprofit Board Education by BoardSource.