The leadership of nonprofit organizations pours their hearts into achieving their mission and vision and is passionate about ensuring institutional growth and success. Yet so many organizations lack the necessary safeguard for maintaining institutional stability—a succession plan.

Succession planning can be viewed as a touchy topic. We often find that neither Board nor senior staff wants to raise the issue, as they are unsure of its purpose and may perceive it as a threat.

What they fail to realize is that, without a succession plan, an organization becomes vulnerable to loss of management, loss of knowledge and loss of progress/momentum if critical leadership should suddenly depart. The best approach is to remove the sense of “threat” through an open dialogue with your key leadership staff. Make sure they understand that succession planning is for the good of the organization as it lays out a “roadmap” without firm dates for implementation.

A succession plan is a critical management tool that helps ensure long-term viability and sustainability. Such planning allows a Board and its staff leadership to think through, in advance, a practical approach that will effect a smooth and successful transition for individuals in key leadership positions. It does not establish a specific timeline, but it does begin to “frame the conversation” to help make sure that an organization continues to be managed at its highest level. This proactive approach mitigates the significant risks associated with the failure to address succession planning.

Schultz & Williams Vice President Rick Biddle and Co-principal Investigator Dennis Kelly, Director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., recently completed a study for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) on zoo directors’ succession planning. This study reveals critical insights into the scope of leadership transitions that will take place over the next few years. In fact, the study has exposed an urgent and widespread need for institutions and their Boards to actively engage in framing succession plans to insure that they continue to build on the success and momentum created by their existing leadership teams.

The study found that only 36% of its participating zoos and aquariums had succession plans! “Never before has succession planning been more important for zoos and aquariums than now,” said Biddle. “In fact, our study revealed that this is a crucial issue for other sectors of the nonprofit world as well, since today’s baby boomers are beginning to age out of their long-held leadership positions.”

Succession should be a topic addressed now…even if you are not anticipating a change in leadership. Succession planning lays the path to an orderly outcome. It helps to prepare your organization for the unexpected loss of a member of your leadership staff. Having a process and plan in place allows your organization to continue to deliver the highest level of service and programs to your stakeholders.

Succession plans do not have to be complicated. Their framework includes outlining the transition process and updating key position profiles and organizational structures. Succession plans should be updated annually and integrated into your institution’s strategic planning process.

An important element of ongoing succession planning is working with your organization’s Board. Boards need to be informed about leadership trends in their nonprofit sector/niche and about how the role of the Executive Director/CEO is changing. Board training should include these topics. By being proactively prepared and informed, Board members will be positioned to hire and recruit the “right” leaders.

Taking succession planning steps now will increase your readiness for the inevitable changes in leadership that will be occurring over the coming years.