When a nonprofit loses their executive director, the transition can be tough to weather. So much of a nonprofit’s identity is wrapped up in how this leader is perceived by the public, as well as how they shape the organization’s culture internally. Without a strong, well regarded executive director, even the most visionary nonprofits can be left floundering.

For this reason, it’s integral that your organization has a thorough executive transition plan in place to guide your team through this challenging process.

Executive transition plans are outlines that nonprofits develop to guide them through an executive director’s departure in the event of a planned or unplanned resignation.

The best nonprofit transition plans are comprehensive documents developed with an eye towards the organization’s future. These plans are typically created as a team effort among the highest ranking staff and are subject to board approval. Depending on the nature of your nonprofit, your executive transition plan will look different than another organization’s.

However, there are several key areas that all nonprofits should consider as they design their own plans. To begin the process, your team should:

  1. Understand the role of executive director at your nonprofit.
  2. Align vision with your board as the executive transition plan is crafted.
  3. Develop executive transition plans for all types of departures.
  4. Cultivate internal leaders as part of your nonprofit executive transition plan.
  5. Select your new executive leader and finalize the transition.

Finding the right new leader to guide your nonprofit through these challenging times should be your nonprofit’s first concern. Whether your team is anticipating the departure of a beloved executive director or wants to prepare for an unexpected resignation, it’s time your team crafted an airtight nonprofit executive transition plan.

Understand the role of executive director at your nonprofit.

1. Understand the role of executive director at your nonprofit

There are many factors that shape the role of executive director at your nonprofit. These include your organization’s history, mission, vision for the future and more.

From nonprofit to nonprofit, executive directors play different roles in shaping organizational culture and success. Often, the role an executive director has in leading a nonprofit changes and evolves over time just as the nonprofit itself grows.

This means that the type of executive director your team sought out when your current leader was brought on may not be the type of leader you look for during your present-day executive search process.

One of the central components of your team’s executive transition plan should be coming together to reevaluate the kind of executive director your nonprofit is looking for. During this stage, it’s important to incorporate as many key voices in the discussion as possible, including:

  • The current executive director. For planned resignations, work as closely as possible with your current executive director to understand how they define the role. What do they identify as essential components of a successful leader at your nonprofit?
  • High-level staff. Interview key staff members (like your development director) who directly report to your executive director. What do they indicate is necessary for the next executive director to be successful? Find out what kind of leader they want to see become part of the team.
  • Board members. Your nonprofit’s board will typically have final approval over your executive transition plan as well as the appointment of any new executive director. Survey the board and discover the kind of individual they would like to see in the role.
  • Key stakeholders. Since the support of your donors can be influenced by how they perceive the leadership of your nonprofit, interview your most important contributors to learn who they would like to see in the role and any changes they want to see implemented.

In this initial stage in your executive transition planning process, keep in mind that your team should simply be developing an understanding of how the executive director position fits into your organization as a whole.

Finalizing tangibles like the position description and candidate criteria will come later on in the planning process. However, before any of the next steps can begin, a clear picture of the wants, needs and challenges your nonprofit faces when it comes to leadership need to be comprehensively understood.

Bonus! Want to make sure your transition plan is as strong as it can be? Check out Double the Donation’s guide for crafting an airtight nonprofit leadership succession plan to learn even more about this important strategic planning subject.

Align vision with your board as the transition plan is crafted.

2. Align vision with your board as the executive transition plan is crafted.

Next, it’s time to sit down with your board and align how you anticipate an executive transition will fit into the evolution of your organization. This goes far beyond simply acknowledging the kind of individual the board wants to see lead the nonprofit, but dives deep into shared plans for successfully installing your organization’s next top executive.

Not only are those on your board key members of your nonprofit’s team, but they’re also some of your most valuable fundraising assets. Some serve as top contributors to your cause, while others are often on the front lines securing gifts from sought after prospects.

The biggest mistake your nonprofit can make during an executive transition is failing to include your board during the planning process. Whether you need to make a quick announcement of an unplanned departure or a long-time executive announces an anticipated retirement, your board should be there every step of the way.

As you approach your board and develop your executive transition plan, ask some of these key questions.

Is there a clear process of succession in place?

When nonprofits fail to define an executive transition plan before they pressingly need it, they risk being surprised by discovering a lack of a clear process of succession in their organization. This means that there may not be consciously crafted procedures in place to facilitate a smooth transition in leadership.

Without a clearly-defined process of succession, an executive director could simply resign without fanfare and without direction on how to replace him or her. Similarly, your board may not have a defined role in the transition process, leaving them feeling “on the outs” when it comes to the selection of your nonprofit’s next executive director.

If your board expects to have responsibilities such as final appointment approval or oversight in the executive search process, these should be addressed as your team aligns vision with the board.

How can their personal and professional ties be leveraged during the executive search process?

One of the greatest assets your board brings to the table is their role as fundraising avatars for your nonprofit. As you search for a new executive director, a similar role can be taken on by your board in making connections with cream-of-the-crop candidates for leadership.

When looking for your next executive leader, it’s important that you’re able to represent your nonprofit as a desirable organization that a competitive candidate would want to join. This involves aligning a shared hiring strategy across all arms of your nonprofit, especially with your board.

As your team develops your executive succession plan, work with your board to formalize the role they have to play in identifying and securing candidates. Make sure they are prepared to build connections both before you launch an executive search as well as after.

Additionally, if your search for a new executive director involves an effort to promote from within, having a happy board with a clear role in the succession process can make the difference when convincing a high-level staff member to take on a new leadership challenge.

Develop executive transition plans for all types of departures.

3. Develop executive transition plans for all types of departures.

No matter the circumstances, replacing an executive director is one of the biggest challenges a nonprofit will face. Whether it’s an anticipated departure or an unplanned transition, handling the transfer of leadership can seem like a precarious balancing act.

As your nonprofit crafts your official executive transition plan, it’s essential to understand the varying types of successions that your team may encounter so that your transition plan can accurately anticipate each contingency.

There are three core types of executive transitions your plan should account for, including:

  • Emergency transition. This may take place after the unexpected resignation of an executive director, the termination of a failed leader or in the event that the individual dies. These typically have shorter timelines; however, if your team wants to spend more time conducting an executive search, consider installing an interim executive director in the role.
  • Planned departure. A planned departure may take place as an individual retires from the field, takes a sabbatical or otherwise announces their departure with ample time to prepare for the transition. These benefit nonprofits since you can work in partnership with the current executive director to find the right replacement.
  • Strategic transition. This describes the process of planning for an executive transition before the individual decides to leave your organization. A strategic transition plan can account for both emergency transitions as well as planned departures. Strategic transition plans are ideal for nonprofits and result in the smoothest executive successions.

Essentially, the most prepared nonprofits develop executive transition plans strategically. In fact, the development of these types of plans are often incorporated into strategic planning services offered by nonprofit consultants. If your organization is looking for guidance in this process, partnering with a nonprofit consultant can be the key to a smooth succession of leadership

Cultivate internal leaders as part of your nonprofit executive transition plan.

4. Cultivate internal leaders as part of your nonprofit executive transition plan.

One of the biggest challenges new executive directors face as they take on their role at an organization is a failure to mesh well with the nonprofit’s culture. Similarly, these leaders may find it difficult to find a place for themselves within the existing relationships at the nonprofit.

Whatever the case, issues like these can put up serious roadblocks between the new executive and leadership success.

In the nonprofit sector, there is tremendous turnover even among high-level staff members. That being said, a great way to combat this issue and mitigate the risk of friction when bringing on a new executive director is to emphasize the mentorship and cultivation of future leaders from within your own organization.

As you develop your nonprofit’s executive transition plan, take into account some of the ways your team can start developing future talent so that when the time comes to find a successor to your executive director, you’ll have a pool of candidates primed for promotion.

  1. Start by identifying prospective leaders. To begin the process, single out the best and brightest members of your nonprofit’s staff. Determine who among this group has the skill set you’re looking for in a future leader and would make the best candidates for advancement down the road.
  2. Articulate your intentions. Meet with these individuals and discuss up front your intentions for them. If the leadership cultivation process is clearly articulated, it’s more likely they’ll develop the skills they need to succeed in the position when the time comes, as well as more likely that they’ll stay with your nonprofit in the long term.
  3. Establish a mentorship. Among the individuals your team has approached, establish a mentorship between them and your current executive director. In the time leading up to the transition, they can come to better understand the realities of the role as well as learn helpful wisdom they can apply to the job.
  4. Grow their skills. If the candidates you’ve identified aren’t immediately ready to take on the role, give them the training or education they’ll need to be successful. For larger nonprofits, this may even include financing a degree in order to truly set them up for future success as your organization’s leader.

One of the most important things to remember when preparing for an internal promotion is that your team should try to have as many options as possible when you’re ready to make an offer. Never promise these individuals the role for which they’re being cultivated, but consider their history with your nonprofit as an asset in comparison to external candidates.

When it comes down to it, the longer a person has been with your organization, the more they have proven that they’re committed to your nonprofit and its continued success.

Select your new executive leader and finalize the transition.

5. Select your new executive leader and finalize the transition.

Finally, your nonprofit’s executive transition plan should have steps outlined for conducting a robust executive search among a pool of qualified candidates and include information on how you’ll finalize the selection of your new executive director.

Ideally, the executive search process will be led by a nonprofit consultant and will take place over the course of at least nine months. The first six months will consist of recruiting for the position and the next three months will comprise of candidate interviews to select the front runner.

Consider some of the following aspects of the executive search process that your organization should account for in your transition plan.

Finalizing the search

Early on in the planning process, your nonprofit began assessing what kind of candidate should be sought for the executive director role. At this point, it’s time to make final decisions on what criteria should be met by candidates and what the “must haves” of your new leader will be.

Once decisions are made, you’ll work with your nonprofit consultant to finalize the position description. This will then be incorporated into the collateral that is used when advertising the position to prospective candidates.

In addition, at this point you’ll set a final timeline for the search and a hard stop date for making your selection. If you truly haven’t found the right candidate at this date, you can head back to the drawing board, but there is nothing more detrimental to organizational moral than having an endless search for a new executive director.

Ensuring continued success

Transitioning the right executive director for your nonprofit doesn’t stop at simply selecting the most qualified candidate. In fact, to ensure that this individual is successful in their role it’s integral to incorporate a comprehensive onboarding period into the process.

This period should take about three months and should be considered an educational experience for all involved. For the new executive, this means that they’ll learn all about the day-to-day demands of the job and for the rest of the team, they’ll learn the strengths of their new leader.

In preparation for this period, your team should budget in such a way that in the event of a hiccup in your fundraising strategy, your organization can come out unscathed. Even the best leaders need time to get acclimated and you don’t want to feel rushed out of onboarding because of fundraising turmoil.


Transitioning from one executive director to the next will always be challenging for any nonprofit. However, with expert executive transition planning, your organization will have the tools it needs to find a visionary leader to serve as a guiding light for your mission.

Additional Nonprofit Executive Director Transition Resources

Aly Sterling Philanthropy

Aly Sterling Philanthropy

Over the years we’ve helped nonprofits raise millions of dollars, engage their leaders, hire top-notch talent and grow their missions. Are you ready to move your mission forward? Contact us to get started.
Aly Sterling Philanthropy
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