The Next step

SuccessionA lead article in the business section of my newspaper today was all about what they termed succession woes.  The appointed heir apparent leaves abruptly and everything, apparently, falls apart.  Their succession plans are shredded.  The future looks dim. But succession planning is so much more than simply deciding who becomes the CEO when the current one departs.  In fact, for most organizations—certainly for most nonprofits—the who is far less important than the how do we keep on moving our mission forward.

Three of my clients are in the midst of all this.  Two of them lost their Executives Directors—one rather abruptly, the other in a long planned departure.  The third lost their development director.  She gave a month’s notice, but it was only on her last day that an ad for her replacement was finally posted.

As I have reached out to the (remaining) leadership of all three organizations, I have gotten back the same troubling response: “We’re in limbo now; don’t know what will happen.”

“Things are chaos; let me talk with the staff and see what they think.”

“I know we need your guidance, but I’m too overwhelmed to think about that now.” This does not bode well for the organizations’ futures and does speak volumes about the importance of serious succession planning.

Succession planning is not one thing.  Best case, it entails making sure you have a strong back bench of employees who can take over—at least temporarily—from one of your key executives.  This way, whether there is an emergency situation that requires you to quickly fill a suddenly empty position or if the leave-taking has been planned over a longer period of time (or something in between!) you have your bases covered.  But for many small nonprofits, having a back bench is so far from the reality as to be laughable.  And that points out how critical it is to consider succession planning not just from a “replace a key executive” point of view but from a more holistic, what is needed for this organization, vision.

That means that there must be clarity for everyone about what is going on as well as what has to continue being done.  When I got to my first fundraising job, the position had been open for a staggering (but not always unique) 18 months, during which time, no one had been taking care of business.  Worse, the person who left the position clearly had not been taking care of business, either.

I walked into a vacuum.  There were no records of what my predecessor had been working on; what she had done during her tenure; what needed to be followed up on.  This really came home to roost when I called on a gentleman who had been identified as a potential major donor.  He was cold on the call but amenable to meeting.  I quickly found out why.

He had made a commitment for a large gift two years prior—and had not heard a thing since.  I had no records of my predecessor’s meetings with this man, nor was there any written documentation about his commitment.  And so we had to start from ground zero—with a big sinkhole attached.

Succession starts with the word “success.”  Do make sure that you are planning for that by looking to the future and considering what needs to happen so your organization can thrive and yes, succeed.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, moving them from mired to inspired.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for your free 30 minute consultation.