How to Design a Leadership Succession Plan that Positions Your Board for Success


On June 11, 2018, I presented session III of How to Build the Right Board for Organizational Growth, for non-profits at the Social Innovation Forum. The workshop included 29 attendees from SIF’s alumni portfolio and other non-profit leaders in greater Boston. Here are some of my observations.

As boards are the key to successful nonprofit organizations, leadership is the key to successful boards.

Board leadership is expressed most powerfully and crucially during times of transition and crisis; such periods are also when the absence of leadership is most visible and most devastating to an organization. Strong leadership succession plans minimize the likelihood that your organization will experience a lack of leadership, especially during difficult times.

Here are seven proven strategies for an effective leadership succession plan:

Solid leadership success begins with board recruitment.  Every prospective member of the board should exhibit strong leadership potential.  In fact, it is fair to ask in the recruitment process whether or not candidates might entertain moving to a leadership position. Bottom line:  if no one on the board has the skills or the interest to move into the presidency, it is impossible to formulate a solid succession plan.

An organization’s leadership succession should be navigated by the board development committee. The board development committee is responsible for the governance plan, including the identification and recruitment of board and committee members, the development of committees and officers, and leadership succession. The board development committee (sometimes referred to as the governance committee) should be well aware of the skills and expertise of its members and be able to identify and cultivate leadership to support the governance model.

Succession is easiest when following a defined and reasonable path.  Many times, leadership succession is outlined in the organization’s bylaws, or there is a separate document that outlines the steps toward the presidency. The shorter and more direct the path, the easier it is to accomplish sustainable success. And above all, adhere to term limits. They are there for a reason and provide a realistic timetable for incoming leadership.

Here’s an example of succession progression:

  • President-Elect – One Year
  • President – Two Year Term
  • Immediate Past President – Two-year term, or until a new president is elected

This model allows leaders to rotate through the progression of offices in a 5-year period of time.

Go beyond just the presidency.  A complete succession plan would include all leadership positions within the organization from the Executive Director through the individual committee chairs. It is important to be prepared for leadership progression in your committee structure to ensure consistency and continuity, the added bonus being strong committee chairs will make strong presidents.

Strong succession plans will include provisions for unplanned, temporary, and long-term absences. Always be prepared for the surprises.  Organizations that make leadership succession a priority on all levels are better prepared to face the challenges of an unplanned leadership change.  Build these scenarios into your succession plan so you are prepared with a documented alternative should the succession plan become derailed due to unforeseen circumstances.

Above all, document!  Keep an accurate record of your process, term limits and succession progression so that no one has to “remember” the term rotations.  You should have them written down and hopefully, recorded into the corporate record.

So, dust off your current succession plan and, if needed, make the appropriate updated to ensure the future of your organization’s leadership. Engaging in a thoughtful succession planning process for both staff and board leadership is critical to a nonprofit’s ability to adapt, thrive and grow.

To learn more about board development or set up a training at your organization, contact Vicki Burkhart. For more on the session and how you can build the right board, read the article by the Social Innovation Forum.

Katie Burkhart