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The ultimate guide to nonprofit succession planning

May 09, 2023
This woman is working at her desk to create a strategic, sustainable fundraising plan.

As your nonprofit organization pursues its purpose, it’s essential to think about the long-term sustainability of your leadership team and develop a well-structured plan for attrition. 

Estimates suggest that up to 75% of nonprofit leaders plan to leave their positions in the next five to 10 years and only 27% have a documented plan for succession. This makes preparation all the more necessary. 

Nonprofit succession planning involves the intentional identification, nurturing, and development of future leaders, so that when a key leadership transition occurs, the organization is prepared to continue its important work with minimum disruption. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the importance of nonprofit succession planning and provide practical tips for developing an effective plan. 

What is nonprofit succession planning? 

A nonprofit succession plan outlines what to do in the event that a chief executive, employee, or board member leaves the organization, with the goal of ensuring a smooth transition. The process typically involves identifying potential candidates for key leadership positions, creating plans for internal leadership development and training, and establishing clear guidelines for leadership succession. 

Why is proper nonprofit succession planning necessary?

The purpose of nonprofit succession planning is to maintain continuity and effectiveness in the face of internal changes. By identifying potential candidates in advance and providing them with clear guidance, you can ensure that they are prepared to fill leadership roles and keep your organization moving forward. 

Additionally, providing professional development opportunities and career growth paths within the organization can help attract and retain top talent, further strengthening your nonprofit's impact.

4 tips for successful nonprofit succession planning 

Effective succession planning minimizes risks associated with leadership transitions and ensures that operations are not disrupted. Therefore, it’s crucial to have a sound strategy in place.

As you get started with nonprofit succession planning, keep these tips in mind: 

  • Start planning early. Nonprofit succession planning is a long-term process and should begin well before any anticipated leadership transitions. This will allow ample time to identify and develop potential leaders.
  • Conduct a thorough assessment. Before beginning the succession planning process, it's important to conduct a comprehensive assessment of your organization's leadership needs, its current leadership team, and potential internal and external candidates for key leadership positions.
  • Involve stakeholders. Engage key stakeholders, including board members, staff, and volunteers, in the succession planning process. Seek their feedback and ideas to ensure that the plan reflects the goals of the entire organization.
  • Develop and implement a clear plan. Create a clear, well-structured succession plan that outlines the roles, responsibilities, and timeline for all involved parties. Identify and train potential successors and have a contingency plan in case of unexpected leadership transitions.
  • Continually review and update the plan. Succession planning is an ongoing process, and it's essential to review and update the plan regularly to ensure it remains relevant. As the organization changes and evolves, so should your succession plan.

Also, consider investing in a flexible solution like Bonterra Case Management (formerly Social Solutions) to guide your leadership training and development. Case management technology collects, analyzes, and stores data from all of your organization’s programs and initiatives. With a centralized database, you can easily onboard new talent and ensure that information doesn’t get lost amid the transition. 

Nonprofit succession planning case study: A Place Called Home

At A Place Called Home (APCH), a nonprofit that educates Los Angeles youth, staff members knew for several months that their CEO of 13 years was retiring and prepared a succession plan for his departure. 

Their first priority was to invest in data collection and reporting tools, so the next CEO could immediately get acquainted with the organization and role.

“We want to know where the metrics are. We want to be able to quickly and easily tell someone how we’re doing against our purpose. Those things that you would want to be able to do to onboard a new CEO are also the things we need to be able to do to run an effective organization,” said Laura Mills, senior director of data and systems operations at APCH. 

After evaluating several tools, APCH began working with Bonterra Program Management’s (formerly Social Solutions) Case Management solution and saw immediate results, with increased tracking capabilities and improved reporting time. Using these up-to-date reports, the organization identified diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a core priority and elevated it during the hiring process, asking candidates, “What would your plan be?” The team ultimately hired a CEO who had a passion for the initiative. 

With a new CEO successfully hired and onboarded, the organization used the solution to prepare for general staff turnover. 

“We expect some attrition—what we’re focused on is building the capacity to not have disruption due to that transition. And that’s where Bonterra Case Management comes in for our staff. For example, we’re not going to have the same math instructor for 12 years, so being able to go in and see all of the documents and referrals associated with that teacher’s students ensures there’s no disruption after their departure,” said Mills. 

A final note about nonprofit succession planning 

Keep in mind that the specifics of a nonprofit succession plan will vary depending on your organization's size, complexity, and resources. Use case management software to scale your efforts over time and make informed decisions about your hiring needs. Doing so will lead to a more efficient, effective, and transparent process.

For more information on nonprofit succession planning, watch our dedicated video!


    Case Management
  • Nonprofits
  • Coordinating social services