Non-profit Leadership Transition

Earlier this year Gilman Partners hosted a panel discussion on the topic of leadership succession planning for non-profit organizations. The panel included executive directors (incoming and outgoing) and Board members who all shared their personal experiences and learnings. Here are several themes and recommendations that emerged from the engaging discussion: 

Succession Plans

  • A Board should have a succession plan in place if the executive director is within 2-3 years of retirement/leaving.
  • This succession plan might identify potential internal candidates who need additional development, as well as details on the types of development that are needed and the plan to complete the development.
  • One organization on the panel noted they hired a new senior leader to fill an organizational need but also began to groom her as a potential successor to the Executive Director.
  • Organizations need to have an emergency succession plan in place. This plan should include the name of an interim leader in case of a sudden vacancy.


Conducting a Search for a New Leader

  • When beginning a new leadership search, be very intentional about the diversity and makeup of the Search Committee. In addition to Board members, consider inviting other key stakeholders as well as representatives from your client population.
  • Make sure your organization has a clear communication plan that outlines what will be shared about the search process and when.
  • Convene the Search Committee up to nine months in advance to begin work on the job description and determine whether you want to engage an outside search firm.
  • Allow up to six months to complete a search, especially if you’re including out-of-town candidates in the process.


Leadership Transition

  • Several panelists agreed that a longer overlap of the outgoing and incoming leaders isn’t necessarily better. Aim for an overlap of 2 to 4 weeks.
  • Establish a formal transition committee made up of Board members and staff to help with onboarding the new leader and making introductions to key stakeholders. The incoming leader should feel comfortable asking the transition committee any question – no matter how seemingly trivial.
  • As you approach the transition date, create and deploy a detailed communication plan that includes internal staff as well as key funders, government officials, partner organizations, volunteers, and other important constituents.


All agreed that overseeing a leadership transition is one of the most important responsibilities a non-profit Board will face and it’s never too early to begin the conversation and put plans in place.



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