raffa resources
raffa resources
raffa resources

News & Resources publications​​​​

​Succession Essentials for All Nonprofits: A Risk Management Best Practice
By Melody Thomas, Senior Consultant, Nonprofit Search and Planning

Nonprofit executives and board leaders who would cringe at the term Succession Planning are no longer cringing. Succession Planning is not code for “the executive is on his/her way out.” It doesn’t mean it’s time to identify an internal successor. And, it should not inspire fear about the potential loss of funders, institutional knowledge and key networks when an executive departs.   

The Succession Planning paradigm has shifted significantly. Succession Planning is not only for planned and unplanned transitions, but also for short-term and long-term emergency absences requiring strategies that effectively maintain leadership continuity and sufficient coverage for key responsibilities. This paradigm shift is called Succession Essentials, and includes both transition and emergency protocols.

As Succession Planning continues to evolve for small- to large-sized organizations, it creates opportunities for organizational leaders to evaluate their Succession Essentials. Both the transition protocol (Succession Policy) and emergency protocol (Emergency Backup Plan) are key documents for Board members, executives and senior managers.

Board Leaders: The Succession Policy is a governance best practice risk management tool that maintains leadership continuity. Board leaders are able to review the long-term vision and direction of the organization and develop a written policy that establishes principles, clarifies roles and implements procedures in the event of a short-term, long-term or permanent absence of the chief executive. Some key questions the board addresses in this document include:

  • ​Will the organization appoint an acting executive or hire an interim?
  • Will both internal and external candidates be considered in the event of a permanent absence of the executive?
  • Will a national search be conducted?

The board clarifies their own role and responsibilities during a temporary or permanent absence of the executive and the roles of the departing and incoming executives. Long before the planned or unexpected departure of the executive, the board determines how it will meet one of the board’s most significant responsibilities: hiring and partnering with the executive. The policy lays out key procedures such as creating a Transition and Search committee, providing for interim leadership and communication plans, and agreeing on timelines to ensure leadership continuity via an overall plan of action. 

Chief Executives: The Emergency Backup Plan is an organizational best practice risk management tool that maintains continuity of mission-related work. In the event of unplanned absences of key staff, the organization must ensure that key responsibilities, operations and relationships are maintained on both the executive and senior management levels. This process creates an opportunity for the executive to review the existing talents of the staff and understand the redundancies and gaps across the senior leadership team. Emergency Backup Plans provide leader development opportunities for staff who might be needed to fill key responsibilities in the event of an absence of the executive or senior management staff member. Key relationships are identified and shared with other staff to mitigate the risk of losing essential stakeholders (i.e., funders, donors, community partners) in the event of a short-term or long-term absence. 

Succession Essentials, a written Succession Policy and Emergency Backup Plan, are critical for nonprofit board leaders and executives to adopt as an annualized best practice. They ensure that the leadership have annually performed their due diligence towards organizational sustainability through executive continuity and ongoing fulfillment of mission-related work. 

If your organization does not currently have these essential practices in place, it is at-risk and should seek to develop the policy and plan before an absence, emergency or transition occurs.

To explore Succession Essentials for your organizations, contact Melody Thomas at mthomas@raffa.com or 202.955.7242.