Over the next three to five years, the country’s nonprofit organizations, particularly cultural attractions, will experience an alarming shift in their senior leadership. And in many cases, they have no plans in place to successfully manage this transition.

This changeover in senior leadership is due to a number of factors – among them, financial concerns, new Board leadership and consolidations – but the primary driver is the current age of the CEO or executive director. Many institutions have been managed by “baby boomers” who have effectively guided their organizations for over 20 years and are now ready to enjoy retirement.

In S&W’s survey of institutions that are part of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), more than 50 senior leadership positions – 20%+ of all AZA member institutions – will transition during the next five years. These numbers double, and perhaps triple, if we include all senior management positions within AZA organizations, such as general curators, CFOs, COOs and internal relations officers.

Below are the initial steps nonprofit organizations need to take in preparing for a transfer in leadership and for creating a viable succession plan:

  • Identify a Board Committee or Task Force (including Board and senior staff members) to begin the conversation on succession planning.
  • Assess the Known – Identify the list of potential employees who could transition during the next five years and clarify the potential timing of their changeover.
  • Review and Update Job Descriptions, including titles and skill-sets required of the positions. Since many individuals have been in their current jobs for 10 to 20 years or more, their job descriptions have not been updated to reflect current needs and expectations.
  • Review Reporting Relationships – Assess opportunities to re-align or focus on core institutional needs such as visitor experiences, funding, programs and/or core mission-related initiatives.
  • Outline the Approach to Transition in order to have a consensus, in advance, among the Board and staff on central transitional issues including:
  • Who will lead the institution during the interim, if any, while the CEO position is being filled.
  • What positions will require a national search regardless of the qualifications of the internal candidate(s).
  • If the Board wants at least one internal candidate for the senior leadership position, the organizational structure must support this and the candidate should be clearly positioned to succeed.