January 15, 2016

Leadership Succession Planning

Proactively identifying and developing new leaders to succeed current ones and meet the nonprofit's future leadership needs.

Succession planning is the process of identifying and developing new leaders to succeed current leaders. At its best, it is a proactive and systematic investment in building a pipeline of leaders within an organization and identifying strong external candidates, so that when transitions are necessary, leaders at all levels are ready to act.

How it's used

Succession planning lets nonprofits respond to strategic changes that create new leadership needs or roles and be prepared for transitions when necessary. This embeds leadership development as a core organizational system, rather than as an ad hoc process, so the organization is ready for inevitable change.


Thinking through how an organization's leadership needs will evolve in the future, identifying future leaders, and identifying activities to strengthen leadership capacity are the core of succession planning. While the future may be uncertain, creating a plan enables the organization to develop leaders more intentionally and effectively through five linked processes:

  1. Engage senior leaders: It's essential to have consensus among the CEO and senior leadership team about the importance of proactive leadership development and succession planning. This group should set expectations, put processes in place, and hold the organization accountable for making it happen.
  2. Map out a vision of the future leadership team: Next, understand the leadership capabilities required to achieve the organization's strategy. With this understanding, the organization can assess the potential of current staff to become future leaders to meet emerging needs.
  3. Develop future leaders: Identify potential future leaders, then diagnose their development needs and build in systematic processes to cultivate that development.
  4. Seek new talent to fill gaps: There will be instances where future leadership capabilities cannot be fulfilled by current staff, so the organization should have effective hiring and ongoing on-boarding practices to integrate new leaders into the organization.
  5. Monitor and improve the process of developing leaders: Like most processes, leadership development is iterative. Collect data to understand and improve best practices and smooth out rough spots.

Related topics

Additional resources

How Nonprofit Leadership Development Sustains Organizations and Their Teams
With a few simple practices, nonprofits and NGOs can turn a talent development process into an employee retention tool, a leadership pipeline strategy, and a step toward a more inclusive workforce—all at the same time.

Leadership Effectiveness
This collection of Bridgespan resources offers more information on the hiring, development, and effectiveness of nonprofit leaders.

Managing Leadership Transitions
The National Council of Nonprofits has aggregated a number of resources to help nonprofits prepare for and effectively execute leadership transitions.

Succession Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Resource List
This resource list contains citations for selected articles and books from the Foundation Center's bibliographic database, the Catalog of Nonprofit Literature, on the subject of succession planning.

Building Leaderful Organizations: Succession Planning for Nonprofits
Published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, this report covers the importance of succession planning, different approaches to planning, instructions for executing a plan, and short case studies.

Examples and case studies

Four Case Studies of Founder Transitions—Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning
These four short case studies consider various scenarios in which an organization can experience, and prepare for, the leaving of a founder or longtime executive.

Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools Executive Transition Case Study
This case study chronicles the transition process of the founding executive director of one nonprofit in the New Orleans community, and uses that case study to foster discussion and learning among other nonprofits as they begin to think about and plan for the inevitable changeover of their executives.

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