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A Dozen Succession Planning Tips for Not-for-Profits

Feb 20, 2017

The numbers are concerning. Only 34% of not-for-profits reported that they had a written succession plan in place, according to a BoardSource survey. And while concern over succession planning permeates corporate America, not-for-profits have a unique set of challenges. One of those is that executive directors tend to stay in place longer. Another is boards generally focus on more immediate concerns, pushing succession planning to the back of the agenda.    

The Importance

Succession is key to sustainability. Not having an effective succession plan could adversely impact donor funding, the lifeblood of a nonprofit. It can also leave a large void of institutional knowledge when an executive director leaves, particularly if it’s a sudden departure.   


Proper succession planning should take into consideration 3 scenarios: (1) emergency – when a nonprofit leader leaves suddenly; (2) planned – when that individual has a scheduled retirement date; and (3) developmental – cultivating future leaders within the organization.

Board Role

Succession planning should start at the board level. Typically, this would fall under the auspices of the governance committee.


Consider the following helpful ideas when undertaking the succession planning process:

  • Make succession planning part of the organization’s overall strategic planning process.
  • Develop a succession timeline that covers planning and implementation.
  • Include a discussion of succession planning as part of the executive director’s annual review.
  • Position succession as a collaborative effort across the organization. 
  • Determine if the new leader will come from within or outside the organization.
  • Decide who will be the organization’s spokesperson during the succession transition.
  • Document the ED’s key processes, and make other leaders privy to his/her duties and relationships.
  • Maintain communication with stakeholders.
  • Use an external executive recruitment firm if necessary.
  • Estimate costs regarding recruitment, compensation differential and any potential fundraising decrease. 
  • Provide organizational support for the new leader via training and other resources. 
  • Stick with and trust your succession plan.

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Jimmy Mo

Jimmy Mo CPA, Partner, EisnerAmper Not-for-Profit Services Group, has expertise in not-for-profit and health care industries, working with organizations such as museums, foundations, cultural/religious and research/scientific, among many others.

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