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Succession planning — take "emergency" out of the equation

If your nonprofit's board chair or executive leader resigns abruptly, or is forced to step down, is your organization prepared to install new leaders who can preserve continuity of operations and services? Enter your emergency succession plan.

A strong emergency succession plan takes "emergency" out of the equation, showing that:

  • Your organization is prepared to continue operations despite an unexpected transition
  • Leaders within your organization are recognized and supported
  • Staff are cross-trained and ready to take on multiple roles

Why an emergency succession plan matters

Emergency succession planning is good risk management. Current leadership shouldn't find themselves threatened. Rather, emergency succession is simply planning for contingencies that, necessarily, can't be foreseen. Building emergency succession plans into your organization's strategic plan provides a clear direction should senior leadership depart suddenly or be forced to take an unscheduled leave.

What the emergency succession plan should do

An emergency succession plan should:

  • Prioritize leadership functions of the executive director or chief executive and the board chair. This will help keep the transition from interrupting day-to-day operations.
  • Establish an order of succession. Ideally, the executive director and board chair are actively developing heirs apparent, or obvious successors who are ready to step in and assume leadership as seamlessly as possible. For example, the board treasurer is often the next in line for the position of board chair.
  • Include specific instructions for the interim leader. This includes details on signing payroll checks, making purchases, reporting to the board and all other essential leadership responsibilities.
  • Support various succession scenarios. A short-term strategy should cover the unexpected absence of a leader for two to three months, such as for a medical or family leave. A long-term plan prepares for a leader's absence for anywhere from three months to a year. A permanent succession plan should establish an interim leader and also trigger procedures for selecting a permanent leader, either through internal promotion or an executive search.

For help getting started, consider emergency succession planning templates from the Center For Nonprofit Advancement or Executive Transitions. You might also consider hiring a succession planning consultant to draft an emergency succession plan. As in many other areas of nonprofit management, an outside perspective can be helpful in highlighting key areas to address.

How to support the emergency succession plan

The most effective way to support an emergency succession plan is to actively cross-train management and staff, so that key staff are ready to step into multiple management positions should they be needed. The same goes for board members. If the board leadership changes suddenly, members should be prepared to shift into new positions and pick up new roles.

It's also essential to update your emergency succession plan as senior staff, executives and board leaders make inevitable transitions.

You might also use emergency succession planning as way to initiate long-term succession planning, if it's not in place already. Discussing the departure of a founder or other leader can be uncomfortable — but staff and other stakeholders can take heart in knowing the organization will be placed in strong and sure hands when the time comes.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Center for Nonprofit Advancement: Emergency succession plan

Executive Transitions: Emergency succession plan

Nonprofit Quarterly: Planning for leadership emergencies in nonprofits by Tim Wolfred (2014)

First Nonprofit Foundation: Sustaining great leadership: Succession planning for nonprofit organizations by Tom Adams (2010)



Baltimore-based writer and educator