Although succession planning has generated a buzz in the foundation world and among organizations that provide technical assistance to nonprofits, it hasn’t caught on widely in the nonprofit sector. A national survey of 2,200 executive directors commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that although more than two-thirds plan to leave their jobs within five years, most lack succession plans. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Casey’s director of leadership lamented, “Succession planning is so important, but no one is doing it.”
There are many reasons executive directors and board members are reluctant to initiate conversations about leadership succession. Executive directors and the organizations they lead are often closely linked; letting go of the position may mean a loss of identity, community, and connections. Even when executive directors are ready to move on, the question “What next?” is not easily answered. In some cases, long-term executive directors have made financial sacrifices and lack adequate resources for retirement. Some staff leaders fear being forced out of their positions before they are ready, and others feel disloyal broaching the subject of succession.
For board members, the prospect of a change at the helm may raise fears about the organization’s future direction and financial prospects. Boards often rely heavily on their executive directors as visionaries and fundraisers. Conversations about executive director succession often point to the need for boards to step up to their governance responsibilities more fully. Finally, most board members are inclined to be supportive of executive directors and may perceive succession planning activities as a vote of no confidence.