Organizations Also Need to Plan for Change


Part One of a Two-Part Series

Change is a part of all of our lives and a part of an organization’s life as well. Some changes are planned for, others happen unexpectedly. When possible, organizations should plan for leadership changes thoughtfully. But they should also have in place an emergency succession plan in the event of an unexpected change. We asked Byron Johnson, senior project director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, a few questions about the process of planning for a change in executive leadership.

Q: What is a succession plan and why is it important for a nonprofit organization to have one?

A: Succession planning builds staff skills towards achieving an organization’s strategic vision, builds the leadership capacity of staff, and develops a pool of potential management successors. It also provides the opportunity for some organizations to diversify their agency leadership.

Q: What should the succession plan include?

A: There are two types of written succession plans: 1) an emergency succession plan; 2) a departure-defined succession plan.

An emergency succession plan ensures that key leadership and administrative functions and services continue without disruption in the event of an unplanned, temporary absence of an administrator. It should include the following components:

1. A current description of the key functions of the executive director.

2. A list of functions that would be covered by an acting director, what his or her authority would be, and which functions would be covered by other staff.

3. Who has the authority to appoint the acting director?

4. Standing appointee(s) to the position of acting director (with first and second backups) and compensation for acting director(s).

5. A cross-training plan for those identified back-ups that ensures they develop the abilities to carry out the executive director’s role.

6. A description of how the board will support and supervise an acting director.

7. A communication plan in the event of an emergency succession (who gets notified and when).

8. An outline of procedures to be followed in the event an emergency absence becomes a permanent absence.

Q: What are the challenges we might face if our executive left and we didn’t have a plan in place?

A: Lack of succession planning can result in what we call a post-transition “meltdown.” An organization can become so traumatized when faced with the prospect of dealing with an unplanned leadership transition that program delivery, funding and, by extension, the whole community can be adversely affected.

Part Two in this series will include information about a departure-defined succession plan. For more detailed information on succession planning, visit

Mel and Pearl Shaw are the owners of Saad & Shaw. They help nonprofit organizations and institutions rethink revenue sources. They are the authors of “How to Solicit a Gift: Turning Prospects into Donors.” Visit them at or call 522-8727.