March 17, 2023

Leadership Continuity Planning: Three Tips for Nonprofits

By Karen Schuler, Partner, Nonprofit Search, Transition & Planning

Leadership Continuity Planning:  Three Tips for Nonprofits Executive Search

Leadership continuity planning, today’s approach to succession planning, is the science and art of planning in advance for unexpected extended absences or departures.

Components of a Leadership Continuity Plan

To prepare for an unexpected departure, consider the following factors:

  • The position’s key functions;
  • Staffing to support functions;
  • Length of time temporary staffing is sustainable;
  • Cross training; and
  • Communication.

Too often this mission-critical work is left for “when there is time,” which translates to never. Others engage in the work as a “one and done” activity, so outdated plans sit in a file. Many simply say “We’ve got this,” and yet no one does.

Here are three tips to move your nonprofit’s leadership continuity planning from a “good idea” to a living, thriving asset:

Be Inclusive

Leadership continuity planning should not be reserved for just the CEO or executive director position. Yes, it is critically important for every nonprofit to plan ahead for a change in executive leadership. But it is also important for organizations to prepare for changes in leadership at the board level and across the organization, and to update the plans annually. These key questions can help nonprofits begin this work:

  • Has the board engaged in its own succession planning, both for officers and at-large members? Does the board’s plan have enough continuity to provide stable board leadership when a CEO transition occurs?
  • Do all members of the senior management team and their direct reports engage in leadership planning? Is there clarity around how a key position in the organization, and that role’s responsibilities, will be sustained in the event of an unexpected absence?

Think Expansively and Creatively

Effective leadership planning doesn’t merely check the standard boxes, such as “my direct report is my backup in the event of an emergency.” It also integrates broad and creative approaches, including identifying talent in different areas of the organization to engage in cross-training and bringing external capacity into the organization when helpful. Key questions to ask in this area include:

  • How can the nonprofit develop an organization-wide skills database for all staff that both supports leadership in identifying internal talent and helps team members think more broadly about skills they want to develop? How can cross-training create necessary redundancies and a pipeline of future leaders within the organization?
  • What external resources should we engage to bring added capacity to our team when one of our members is unavailable for an extended period? Are there temporary staffing agencies, consultants with subject matter expertise, or outsourced professional services firms that would bring essential additional capacity to our team quickly?


Communication with internal and external stakeholders is essential to successful planning. This includes communicating the organization’s value for leadership continuity planning and its role in ensuring the mission will continue to thrive through leadership change. It also includes communicating with internal and external stakeholders to keep them appropriately informed and assured that the nonprofit has a plan to navigate unexpected leadership change. Key questions include:

  • Are we prepared to communicate unexpected leadership departures to the board and/or senior leadership as quickly as possible so the planning can be implemented smoothly?
  • Have we considered technology in our communications plan? How will we deal with the departed executive’s email and phone number, and messaging on our website?
  • Have we identified the key external relationships that may be impacted by an unexpected leadership departure? Have we built a plan to inform and assure those external stakeholders?
  • Most importantly, do our communications (to internal and external audiences) adequately share information while also attending to the potential emotional or psychological impact of the news? Do they align with any applicable legal parameters?

Change is ever-present, and leadership change is inevitable. Nonprofits that weave leadership continuity planning into their structures and culture ensure, at a minimum, that their work and mission are not at risk in the event of an unexpected departure. Most organizations also benefit from the internal talent development mindset that leadership planning can generate.

If you have any questions about this article or how we can help your organization with leadership continuity planning, contact Karen Schuler at [email protected].