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):


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


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:


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?



"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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