Career Succession Planning in a Non-Profit

By Shelly Trent

What is Succession Planning?

It is an ongoing process to identify, assess, and develop internal talent to ensure leadership continuity. By having internal staff move into higher-level roles, you also ensure that your organization’s mission, vision, and goals will be carried forward.


Why is Succession Planning Important?

In the event of an unexpected death or serious illness, a disaster (such as a car accident or plane crash) involving key leaders, or even planned retirements, do you know who would lead your non-profit? Most organizations would likely say “no.” It may be assumed that if the CEO or Executive Director was unable to fill the role any longer, the person second in command would take the reins. But, is that the best option? Has that person really been developed to be successful in the position? Succession planning allows you to purposefully plan a series of personnel moves so that high-potential (HIPO) employees are developed and prepared to move into key roles in advance of the actual opening. Succession planning allows for the passing along of institutional knowledge through mentoring, coaching, and other developmental activities that can improve the chances for the HIPO to be prepared for higher roles. Internal promotions also minimize the possibility of making a poor selection of an outside candidate.


Further, it allows your non-profit to “grow your own” leaders internally, manage diversity through the career development of minorities, have HIPOs ready to step into new roles quickly, and increase employee loyalty and commitment.


Succession Planning Data

According to a survey conducted in June 2011 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM):

  • Fewer than a quarter (23%) of organizations have a formal succession plan in place

  • Approximately one-half of succession plans include president/CEO (49%), executives (54%), senior management (58%) and middle management (51%)

  • Almost one-third (30%) of organizations evaluate or update their succession plans once a year.

  • The organizations that had not developed a formal succession plan reported that more immediate requests take precedence in the organization over developing a formal succession plan.


Presently, there are four (and soon to be five) generations in the workforce:

  • The Traditionalists (born before 1945)

  • The Baby Boomers (born 1945-1964)

  • Generation X (born 1965-1982)

  • Generation Y (born 1982-1999)


The Baby Boomers will be leaving the workforce en masse over the next several years.


According to the U. S. Census, by 2016, one-third of the total U.S. workforce will be age 50 or older, and will increase to 115 million by 2020. This increase comes at a time when the entry-level workforce is in rapid decline, and the age of retirement is increasing from 65 to 70 years. The U.S. Department of Labor reports thatU.S. employers will need 30 million new college-educated workers by 2020. However, fewer than 23 million people will graduate from U.S. colleges in the next ten years. Do the math! That’s a shortage of 7 million!


An April 2012 SHRM-AARP survey showed that approximately one-half of organizations (51%) indicated that writing in English (grammar, spelling, etc.) was the top basic skill observed among older workers that is not readily seen among younger workers. Fifty-two percent of organizations reported professionalism/work ethic as the top applied skill that younger workers are less likely to exhibit; problem-solving was second. This being said, organizations have a lot of development to do with younger workers.


Succession planning is also an issue of business continuity. Estimates show that:

  • Boomers (46- to 64-years-old) will have four to six jobs over their working life

  • Gen X (30- to 45-years-old) will have 10 to 12 jobs over their working life

  • Gen Y (15- to 29-years-old) will change jobs every one to two years

  • High rates of turnover in Gen X and Y should cause serious concern among organizations that will see higher costs associated with filling vacant positions.


Based on the Bliss-Gately Cost-to-Replace tool, it is estimated that to replace an employee, an organization will pay 150% of the salary each time the position is filled/refilled. If Gen X and Y employees leave after a year or two, your non-profit will be spending a great deal of money to refill those positions. By engaging HIPOs in succession planning and helping them develop for future roles, it is less likely you will have to replace staff as often.


When your seasoned employees leave, you lose not only their experience, but also their institutional knowledge. What is that worth? While it’s true that you can put together procedural manuals that give details about how to do a job, you can’t pass along that past knowledge of the organization’s history, successes, challenges, and relationships with other organizations, funders, or supporters. That is why mentoring, coaching, and job shadowing are common types of institutional knowledge transfer programs.


What’s the Process to Plan for Succession?

  • Decide how long the timeline will be – do you need to have successors in place within one year? five years? How long will it take to develop and prepare the HIPOs?

  • Determine which positions are “key” to have in the succession plan.

  • The current leaders should participate with human resources in making this decision.

  • Review the job descriptions for those determined to be “key” leaders (your job descriptions should be up-to-date).

  • Interview each key leader to review the job description and discuss any other criteria that should be noted and to determine future needs in those positions.

  • Discuss “intangible” leadership criteria such as decision-making skills, judgment, public speaking, etc.

  • Ask them what they think are the most important aspects of their positions that will be needed in their replacements – it may not be the day-to-day tasks, but more likely the soft skills, like problem solving.

  • Create competency lists based on job descriptions and actual soft skills (judgment, decision making, etc.) needed for positions now and in the future.

  • While some organizations limit participation to candidates already in line for top-level positions, others identify candidates for immediate backup of key leadership positions and development activities are individualized for those employees. HIPOs can be identified outside of the functional area and development activities are designed that emphasize preparation for movement regardless of function or department. Other HIPOs are identified at lower levels and development activities are designed to increasetheir understanding of the organization and broaden their career knowledge.

  • Employees are allowed to “self-select” into the program; hand picking the successors may cause dissatisfaction among employees, and you may be missing someone who has talent but doesn’t “toot his horn.”

  • Ask those potentials whether they want to be considered for the program.

  • Review performance evaluations of potentials and determine the career goals of potentials. Maybe they are interested in doing something totally different, such as a lateral move.

  • Look at the education, training, salary history, and background of the potentials.

  • After developing the competency lists for each key position and reviewing talents of possible successors, determine what gaps exist. Determine what potential successors need to do to become ready for the key positions.

  • Create development plans for each HIPO based on competencies and gaps. The development can include training to “bridge the gap,” certification, college courses, role playing for problem solving, mentoring, 360° feedback, and special assignments. Key leaders should observe the potentials in this process to determine leadership and decision-making skills and watch interaction among group members.

  • Key leaders can give the potentials special projects to work on directly with/for the leaders to complete projects and learn on the job. Assignments can be developing budgets, making presentations at conferences, attending special meetings, meeting with the press,etc.

  • Before a key leader leaves, ask him/her to participate in interviewing and selecting the potential leader who will take his/her place. Don’t just choose a favorite employee—go through a fair interview process with any potential who is in line for the role.



"The role of the leader is all the more legitimate and powerful if leaders make their followers into leaders. Only by standing on their shoulders can true greatness in leadership be achieved."

-- James McGregor Burns


Is your organization ready to make followers into leaders? Succession planning can be a valuable tool for non-profits to engage and retain staff by developing them into the future leaders of the organization.




Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). (2011). SHRM-AARP Strategic Workforce Planning Poll. Retrieved from http://www.shrm.org/Research/SurveyFindings/Articles/Pages/SHRMAARPStrategicWorkforcePlanning.aspx


U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Retrieved from: http://www.census.gov/2010census/


Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and AARP, Inc. (2012). SHRM-AARP Strategic Workforce Planning Survey. Retrieved from



Bliss-Gately Cost-to-Replace Tool. Bliss & Associates, Inc., and Gately Consulting. Retrieved from http://www.gatelyconsulting.com/PRCOSToT.htm



Shelly TrentShelly Trent, SPHR, is a Field Services Director for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) where she has worked since 2000. Shelly’s background includes human resources, college career services, and business and industry training. Shelly is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources and obtained her master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in HR. She completed Ph.D. coursework at the University of Louisville in human resources development and career counseling. In a past position, she developed a succession plan program for a non-profit organization and frequently speaks on the topic. Contact her at Shelly.Trent@SHRM.org.


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