Write Your Own Executive Director Succession Plan

Write Your Own Executive Director Succession Plan

When an executive director leaves their position, it doesn’t really matter how much notice is given if there isn’t a written succession plan in place. In small non-profits, without a dedicated HR staffer, no one has the time for hiring. It’s a hot mess at best and squeezed in over coffee breaks and late nights at worst.

Write it Yourself.

Even when the executive director is long gone, if the hiring committee struggles to find needed documents like a job description or usual places to advertise, it will be the departing ED who gets blamed. The non-profit executive director who wants to protect their organization AND their reputation, won’t wait for the board of directors to prepare the succession plan package, they will write it themselves.

There are 5 core pieces to the succession plan package.

Part #1 – Job Description

If there is one task that will cause fighting and disagreements on the board, it is the creation of a job description for the top paid job, that of the executive director. Every board member will want their noses in the creation of the document, some because they are genuinely interested, some because they want to apply for the job themselves, and some because they arrogantly believe they understand the role better than anyone. Ultimately, this will result in delays getting the document written.

A pro-active executive director doesn’t rock this boat. S/he understands the job better than anyone, knows what should change, and where the nuances are. So, s/he writes it without board input. Yep, that’s right, she creates the document on her own, and [hold your hat] doesn’t get it approved.

That updated job description sits in the digital folder with all other parts of the succession plan. It sits, gathering dust, until the executive director leaves. Then, the hiring committee has the surprise gift of an updated job description they can choose to use or not, and the executive director doesn’t have to be around to witness the squabbles about changes.

Part #2 – Job Advertisement

If the job description is crafted carefully, the first paragraph will be only 1-2 sentences, and will describe a bit about the organization. The second paragraph, also 1-2 sentences, will summarize the key responsibilities of the position. These sentences will then be pulled out, along with work location and minor details, to make up a short-form advertisement. You can read more about crafting a job description in my previous blog post, click here.

This short form advertisement will be added to the digital folder for the hiring committee to use, and can be linked to the complete job description, on the organization’s website, for easy digital access.

If an executive director feels guilty creating only a short form advertisement, they can also create a slightly longer version, by including benefits, a summary of qualifications, and a summary of key responsibility areas.

Part #3 – Where to Advertise

The hiring committee is unlikely to be familiar with the places where the organization typically advertises. This is one more piece of the digital file, a document listing all the media, job boards, funders, and other usual hiring locations, along with a brief description of why they are relevant.

Part #4 – Interview Questions

While it certainly isn’t the executive director’s responsibility to help the hiring committee, setting them up for success is a very nice legacy. To assist the hiring committee in spending their time focusing on selecting the very best candidate, the current ED can create interview questions.

A current executive director will be very knowledgeable about the nuances of the job and can design questions that will reveal important information about candidates. The hiring committee may choose not to use the questions provided, but it happens more often that the hiring committee doesn’t have the time to research new questions. Having the questions available provides an easy option.

Part #5 – Reference Check Questions

Like what was prepared for interview questions, the succession plan digital folder should include reference check questions. Reference check questions are not as in depth as interview questions. The current executive director will have the time to conduct the internet searches, or seek professional advice, in preparing these questions. This is another quick win for the hiring committee.

Part #6 – Hiring Guide

The last piece of the succession plan digital folder is the creation of a hiring guide. In this document, the executive director will write a little bit about how to implement each of the previous steps. S/he will also include both a review of her time at the organization and ideas for a future vision for the position, such as if there are current employees who would be a good fit to move up into the job. It is very likely the hiring committee won’t use all the information verbatim, but reading a handful of idea from the previous ED will provide food for thought as they craft their own future vision for the position.

Protect the organization AND your reputation.

A non-profit executive director, with a finished succession plan digital package provides strong information to jump start the hiring process, ensuring the hiring committee doesn’t flounder, and the organization remains strong.

The executive director with a finished succession plan digital package also knows they have all the pieces in place if they need to quit the job on short notice. It does happen. A non-profit executive director may encounter a situation that pushes them to the limits of wanting to stay in the job. When that happens, some EDs will walk away with little notice. A succession plan digital package can be emailed along with a letter of resignation, to ensure reputations are protected.

DON’T do this.

When a non-profit executive director has all this information in place what they don’t do is most important. They don’t provide the package to the board.

The risks of having all these pieces in place can also make it darn easy for a board of directors to fire an ED on a whim.

Rather than create a situation that might put an executive director at risk, simply file the documents in the ED’s private digital emergency folder and let the board know there are complete succession documents completed. This will provide the board with a known place to look, if the ED leaves on short notice, but the ED can also pull out all documents to provide, for a longer, more amicable departure.  

The comfort of having your ducks in a row.

If you give this digital executive director succession package a try, I’d love to hear how it worked for you. If you have questions, and I love questions, I want to know that too! Please use the form on the right side of the page to let me know.


Hi, I'm Christie Saas, current Executive Director, past board member, and non-profit volunteer. I remember well, those early years when I lacked the training, the confidence, and the work-life balance to focus on becoming the best non-profit leader I could be.

Fast-forward past many bumps in the road, lessons learned, and you’ll find me still in the trenches, but a little wiser, a little calmer, and a whole lot happier. I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

I created ChristieSaas.com so non-profit leaders never need to feel alone. I’m here to help. If you’re a brand-new non-profit leader, or a little more seasoned, someone who’s looking to make a meaningful contribution and still have time for a full life away from the job, you’re in the right place.

© Christie Saas 2023 All Rights Reserved

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