The Toughest Issue Facing Nonprofit Boards Today?


It’s often the elephant in the room. Many board members think about it, but no one wants to bring it up. It often falls to the executive director to broach the topic and when she/he does, there’s a mix of relief and fear.

What is this issue?

The retirement or pending exit of your executive director or CEO.

If you’ve already talked about the fact that this day will come – that’s awesome – you’ve taken the first step.

If you have a written succession plan (not a “successor plan” – they are very different) for both emergency and planned departure of your executive director, then you are ahead of more than 80% of nonprofits.

Doing succession planning is kind of like knowing you should eat healthier and work out. It’s easy to know you should get started NOW, however it’s much harder to take real action. This is especially true when both the board and the ED are not entirely sure what the process is and what the end result should look like.

When I began to research my latest book Following the Leader – Executive Succession for Your Nonprofit, it was immediately clear that we have very little real-life experience with the process and the product, namely the written succession plan itself.

Despite the fact that about 9% of executive directors in the sector are retiring or resigning each year, the majority of nonprofits are doing no advance succession planning.  Search and selection for new EDs is getting more difficult as competition for qualified senior executives increases.  In Canada more than 10,000 new executive leaders are needed each year.

While I’d encourage you to check out Following the Leader at, let me give you some quick tips to get you started on the succession planning process.

  1. Start talking about the “what, when and how” for both an emergency succession plan (ESP) and planned departure succession plan. The executive director should create the ESP, identifying who will be appointed in her/his short-term expected or unexpected absence. The plan should include cross-training of this person (who is often a current senior manager) and back-filling the acting ED/CEO’s workload. This plan should go to the board for a motion of approval. The ESP should be reviewed and if necessary, revised annually.
  2. The board must work with the ED/CEO to develop the planned departure succession plan. Leaving it all to the board to complete means it will be a long tough slog for volunteers. If resources allow, hiring an outside expert to facilitate the process will keep things on track making the outcome 100% certain within a reasonable timeframe of three to six months. In most organizations, it is the ED/CEO who initiates the process, so she/he should take some time to first become educated on the steps required. Sharing information with the board will help make the task less overwhelming and make board members more willing to step-up and become involved. A planned departure succession plan can be developed a year or more in advance of the ED/CEOs departure. Details can be added and the plan tweaked when the actual date of departure is known.
  3. Prepare to spend both time and money on recruiting a new ED/CEO. Most mid- to large-sized nonprofits are choosing to use executive search firms to guide the ED/CEO search and selection process. Ask for quotes (proposals) from two or three firms or individuals who have experience doing executive recruitment in the nonprofit sector. A word to the wise, for board volunteers without paid staff support, the search and selection process can be time consuming and difficult. It is important for candidates to have a positive impression of the board and organization during this process.
  4. Prepare to negotiate salary, benefits, professional development, vacation time, travel allowances and a host of other details. Engage competent legal counsel in preparing a contract that spells out the conditions of employment.
  5. Plan for a period of transition but do not make the overlap of the exiting and incoming ED too long. A couple weeks is usually sufficient, especially if the exiting ED/CEO can be available by telephone or email for quick questions for a month or so following her/his departure.

How about signing-up for 3 free online board workshops that kick-off Great Boards – The Video Course? You’ll receive the 3 workshops plus a free ebook copy of Great Boards – Plain and Simple.

Head on over to:


If you have comments or questions on this or other topics, please drop me an email to [email protected].

All the best and keep on learning!




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