Successful Executive Transitions: Succession Planning in a Time of Uncertainty

4 minute read

Jeanne C. Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

Planning for a successful executive transition is a critical component of strategic planning for all organizations, and is key to sustainability. This article series explores the steps and roles to assure successful transitions; challenges that arise and how to be adaptive; approaches when long-time and founding executives leave versus when the executive is no longer a good fit for the organization; when and how to use a search firm; and how to infuse equity throughout the transition process.


We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails. – Dolly Parton

The pandemic challenges of the past two years, including the increased stress on nonprofit leaders, have led to boards of directors being unsurprised and disappointed by their executive director’s resignation. Anecdotally and by survey results, we know that the burnout and turnover rate of executive directors has been uncommonly high.

While this article series on executive succession has emphasized the importance of a plan, we also recognize that these past couple of years have taken a toll on so many of our dedicated nonprofit leaders. As a result, many organizations may be facing unplanned transitions simply because the stressors have become too much for leadership. In the absence of a formal plan, boards can and should step in to support the outgoing executive director, the staff, and the organization. Even in times of uncertainty, there are actions the board can take to ease the transition and support the organization’s mission.

Predictability is limited in a time of uncertainty. In this pandemic, we all have experienced this. Absent a formal emergency succession plan, the board may feel like it is scrambling to keep order. No matter the situation, it’s best to take some time to listen and learn. It will be okay. Boards of directors have the opportunity to lean in with support for their executive director even as he or she is leaving. If at all possible and assuming the departure is amicable, the board can say “thank you” and acknowledge the contributions the outgoing director has made to the organization. By doing this, the board is conveying to the remaining staff and the public, including funders, that this transition can be positive for the organization.

Identify and adopt a plan. If there is a short-term plan in place, review it and take steps to implement it. Consider the current environment and adapt the plan to meet the moment. If there is no plan in place, take the time to review the situation and identify a few short-term steps to provide order and minimize confusion.

This may be a period of enlightenment for the board to learn more about the challenges faced and the stressors experienced by the outgoing executive director. With this information, the board may identify a transitional leadership plan even as they look further forward to a long-term successor. This approach presupposes that the board itself is prepared to manage through this difficult transition. That said, the board remains fiscally responsible for the organization and must be prepared to assess the situation and act. Unplanned leadership changes increase the organization’s vulnerability as well as its long-term viability and sustainability.   

Assess the organization’s operations. The staff can be invited in for a listening session so the board or its executive committee can hear what their concerns may be. By knowing who the leaders are among the staff, the board can consider the bench strength of the organization; they can determine whether to support an interim executive from among the existing staff or look to an outside consultant or external interim executive as a better choice. The board can and should take stock of the financial condition of the organization including its cash flow management.

Communicate with great care. A communication plan should be established to share with stakeholders, community partners, and funders what is going on and the plans that are in place to support the organization’s mission. Board members can also reach out directly to funders – public and private – to assure them that the organization is managing through this change, that they are aware of the challenges, and offer assurances of continuity. In all of these communications, the board should craft their messages with care.

Turbulent times can bring out the best in us if we are prepared to adapt to the situation and support those around us. Nonprofits are resilient and mission driven. Even when times are tough, nonprofits go toward the challenge and toward those in need.

For ways to identify and get ahead of burnout:

Check out the series article, Successful Executive Transitions: The Short-Term Plan, for templates and guides for planned and unplanned executive transitions.


Read other articles in this Successful Executive Transitions series: Embracing the Inevitable and Relationships with the Board and The Short-Term Plan and From the Desk of an Interim President/CEO and EDI and the Executive Search

For more guidance on executive transitions, talk one-on-one with an expert through our Executive Transitions Pro Bono Program, and visit Information Central for resources and templates.


Human Resources
Organizational Development
Strategic Planning
Succession Planning