Not-for-Profit Management Succession Planning on a Short-Term Schedule

Proactive planning for leadership and staff departures could be considered a hallmark of high-functioning not-for-profit organizations. A strong culture of management succession planning can keep operations running smoothly, even when critical employees leave, but it can be incredibly challenging to prioritize when leadership is caught up in day-to-day issues.

Many not-for-profits aren’t prepared for the unprecedented levels of turnover they’re facing, but there are some techniques to help streamline management succession planning when confronted with unexpected turnover.

What Is Management Succession Planning?

Historically, succession planning has referred to the practice of selecting an individual to directly replace a senior leader. For modern mission-driven organizations, management succession planning should be thought of more holistically.

Within this context, management succession planning is an ongoing process where a not-for-profit continues operations by creating a strong leadership pipeline, increasing redundancy through activities like cross-training, proactively determining key qualifications for critical roles, and identifying options for filling pivotal positions.

Benefits of Well-Prepared Management Succession Planning

When leadership transitions are managed and communicated well, organizational leaders, staff, and stakeholders can benefit in many ways.

  • Employees can feel assured about their roles
  • Exits are more likely to feel orderly rather than chaotic
  • Potential successors can be identified and developed ahead of time
  • Operations can continue running smoothly without pause or disruption
  • Stakeholders and partners may be more confident in the organization

Short-Term Tactics for Management Succession Planning

For not-for-profits that haven’t established a holistic succession planning process, there are several steps that can help soften the negative impacts of any anticipated near-term turnover.

Identify High Risk Positions

Most organizations don’t have the bandwidth to take initiative regarding succession planning options for all of their employees—let alone implement full succession plans for each role. It’s important to identify which positions would present the most risk to the organization without some type of succession planning.

Positions can be considered high risk when either:

  • Roles are so critical to organizational operations or partnerships that an individual’s departure could create significant disruption
  • Organization is made aware of an individual’s planned departure

While retirement eligibility has historically been used as a primary factor to determine which positions to plan around, age may no longer be the primary factor to consider. Across industries, people of all ages are leaving their roles, so it’s important for organizations to take a broader look at the issue.

Ideally, organizations would develop scoring criteria to consistently evaluate and prioritize positions for potential succession needs.

Possible Scoring Criteria
  • Urgency. When will the person exit the role (if known)?
  • Impact on operations. How central is this role to approvals, decision making, or maintaining critical services?
  • Unique skillset and knowledge. How common is the skillset or knowledge needed to successfully perform this role?

Alternatively, if formal scoring will take too long to develop, a well-structured leadership conversation can be used to brainstorm critical positions.

Determine Potential Succession Plan Pathways

Once key positions have been identified, it’s time to determine options for refilling the role, including:

  • Internal Recruitment. Does the organization have internal candidates ready to take on the role?
  • External Recruitment. If no internal candidates are available, does the organization need to engage a recruiting firm or can the recruitment be managed internally?
  • Restructuring or Outsourcing. Is the organization interested in restructuring or outsourcing this role or a function of this role?

As part of this step, it’s important for organizational leaders to know of any restrictions or limitations that apply to filling a position. For example, depending on entity type, there may be restrictions—either internal policies or external regulations—dictating things like whether successor candidates can be preselected, or if external recruitment is required for all positions.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

This could also a good time to review the potential successor candidate pool through a DEI lens. For example, if there’s a lack of diversity across all internal candidates identified for succession pathways, that’s a strong indicator that some part of the recruitment or retention process isn’t functioning properly.

Identify Key Qualifications

To prepare for recruitment, organizations should identify key qualifications or skillsets that are vital to success within a given role. These criteria should relate both to the demands of a particular job and to the overarching needs and goals of the not-for-profit.

In particular, if an organization is expecting a major change in strategy within the next year, consideration should be given to how that shift may impact what is needed from individual positions. For example, if the organization is planning to expand services into a new location, it may be critical for a future leader to have ties to that specific community.

Capture Knowledge

When employees exit an organization, they often leave with huge amounts of institutional knowledge. If an organization isn’t able to follow the above steps due to time or other constraints, capturing employee knowledge before their exit should be the focus. This involves:

  • Developing policies and procedures to document critical processes
  • Providing cross-training on critical functions if possible
  • Updating job descriptions to capture current roles and responsibilities

Since it’s not always possible to take these actions before an employee leaves, organizations should consider temporarily contracting with the departed employee to fill in any gaps in documentation.

We’re Here to Help

To learn more about developing practical succession planning strategies and resources for not-for-profit foundations, please contact your Moss Adams professional. You can also visit our Human Capital Advisory Services or our Not-for-Profit Services pages for additional resources.

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