How to Prepare for a Change at the Top


Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Change is a part of all of our lives, and that’s true for organizations as well. In this column we share part two of our conversation with Byron Johnson, senior project director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services on the topic of succession planning. Part one discussed the need for an emergency succession plan. This column discusses departure-defined succession planning, that is, when an organization knows in advance that the executive director or CEO intends to leave.

Q: What is a departure-defined succession plan?

A: It is a plan for an organization’s leader’s planned departure, usually within two or more years. This plan includes identifying the agency’s goals moving forward, determining what skills their successor will need to achieve those goals, and identifying what in the agency needs “upgrading” (for example, board governance abilities or fundraising capacity) in order for the agency to thrive. A two-year timeline gives the departing executive and others time to address the changes needed before a successor comes on board.

Related to this is another way of thinking about succession planning: Strategic Leader Development, which is the ongoing practice of defining an organization’s strategic vision, identifying the leadership and managerial skills necessary to carry out that vision, and recruiting and maintaining talented individuals who have or can develop those skills. This is also sometimes referred to as “building the bench.”

Q: What should a departure-defined succession plan include?

A: It should include the following elements:

1. A plan for dealing with the personal and professional barriers for the departing executive director.

2. Setting a date for the executive director’s last day.

3. Plans for grooming their successor (when appropriate).

4. Integrating the succession plan into the broader strategic plan.

5. A communications plan – who will be told when about the departure and when?

6. Conducting a “sustainability audit” to identify the operational upgrades needed.

7. Plans for solidifying the management team, if applicable.

8. Identifying board and staff backups for the executive’s key relationships.

9. A plan for putting finances in order.

10. A plan for building financial reserves and securing multi-year funding.

11. Agreement on the executive director’s emeritus role, if the departing executive will have an ongoing formal relationship with the agency.

Q: How does the presence or absence of a succession plan impact fundraising?

A: Most funders and supporters breathe a sigh of relief when there is some form of succession planning rooted in an organization. Knowing that the organization can and will continue in the face of leadership transition makes everyone feel at ease and as a result prevents many fundraising hiccups that may occur during a transition.

For more detailed information on succession planning, visit or

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.