The Five Keys to An Effective Succession Plan

by Joan Garry

An effective succession plan is not about what to do in an emergency. It’s about organizational stability and sustainability.

Last week, I wrote about how important it is for nonprofits to put together a viable succession plan.

This is so important, I need to say it again. It’s just like writing a will or buying life insurance. It’s the responsible thing to do. And if you don’t do it, you’re just asking for a major crisis.

So assuming we can all agree that this is important, how do you go about it? Do you create a short list of people from other organizations you’d invite to interview in case of emergency? Or do you tap insiders? And if you are going to promote from within, how do you set that person (or people) up for success?

This is something I didn’t do as well as I should have at GLAAD.

So, without further ado, here are five keys to an effective succession plan.


1. Take it seriously. We’re not talking about an E.D. with a Word document that outlines who to tell after the bus driver reports the accident (why is it always about getting hit by a bus!?) We’re not talking a simple list of internal and external candidates the E.D. believes could do her job. A plan is more systemic than that. It’s about building internal capacity. It’s about financial security. It’s about understanding what the organization needs at the top and it’s about knowing where the organization is headed.

2. Write the job description you would hand to the headhunter or search committee. NOW. Why not? Why can’t you? How many organizations in transition literally take MONTHS to develop a job description for posting, wasting valuable time, leaving the organization in transition that much longer. Pretend the headhunter wants it in two weeks. So charge the E.D. and a board member or two to write it now so it is ready.

3. Develop a document that outlines the skills and attributes necessary for leadership success. Very different from a job description. What kind of decision maker do you need? Is it mission critical that your next leader be a five star public speaker? An amazing fundraiser? Well known by your constituents? The E.D. should be charged with writing this and circulating to the board. There should be a discussion about it in Executive Session.

4. Get the right people “on the bus.” Jim Collins, author of From Good To Great, (put this on your ‘must read’ list) tells us that great organizations hire great people. Makes sense. But not everyone is great. So if you are thinking about leaving, is it fair to have the new person “manage people out?” Doesn’t exactly set the new person up for success. Conversely, if you have a star (or three), take them to Starbucks. Ask them what they see as professional growth areas. And make a formal commitment to each other that you will help them build those skills.

5. Share relationships. This is not last because it’s the least important. It’s because I want it to stick. I see this ALL THE TIME. I did it myself. There were people connected to my organization because of me. And I know GLAAD lost donors and relationships and stakeholders when I stepped down. I still feel bad about it. On the flip side? Bring staff along to donor meetings and it becomes clear you built a great team. And guess what? It’s even easier to make investments in great teams that singular individuals. I brought a senior staff member (the one I groomed too late) to a dinner with a big donor (not our biggest). It went fantastically. We played off of one another well and the staff member spoke from the heart and from the “trenches.” When that donor passed away, GLAAD received a mind blowing multi-million dollar bequest.

Bonus: Forget about the bus. Please, please, please forget about the bus (i.e. getting hit by it.) Tell your board to forget about the bus. A succession plan is not, in its best form, about what to do in an emergency.

It’s about organizational stability and sustainability.


On Facebook, in addition to my own writings, I post a bunch of stuff that others have written about fundraising, public speaking, developing great boards, and many other topics that are extremely valuable to nonprofit leaders.

It’s like getting a nonprofit leadership magazine right in your Facebook News Feed! Just click the “like” button above.