Should We Plan for Our Own Succession?

by Barbara Barron | Posted May 3rd, 2023 | Subscribe to this newsletter

As all of my readers know, I deeply value and respect my colleagues in advancement. I am one of you. I’ve done the work like you. I’ve walked in your shoes. I’ve written extensively on the valuable roles we can play when we are allowed.

I’ve talked about the pressures, lauded the one-woman office, and offered advice for how Heads and Boards can help us do our jobs and bring about collective success.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we work, how positive our attitudes, how determined (doggedly?) we push through, we come to the end of our rope.

This has happened to me.

I suspect it has happened to you.

We get to the place where we know it’s simply time to move on. And that’s ok. 

Often, a terrific opportunity finds us. We simply can’t resist the chance to run a bigger program, or a smaller, more intentional one. To move or stretch or make more money. All legit. But when we go, it’s disruptive. Even chaotic. 

Is there a way we can make it less so?  What about succession planning for our roles? 

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Some Troubling Statistics

A problem in most small nonprofit organizations, and in particular independent schools, is that succession planning for even the Executive Director or Head of School is neglected. A recent study revealed that:

Few nonprofit organizations admitted they were prepared for what may be a massive transition of leaders from their roles. 27% of those nonprofit organizations surveyed have a written succession plan. Only 17% of smaller nonprofits (under $1M) have a plan.



If your school doesn’t have a plan for the transition, sudden or well-planned, of your Head, it stands to reason that there is no plan for your departure, sudden or otherwise. And unlike Heads, who typically provide 12-24 months (in the well-planned scenario) of advanced notice, most advancement directors give far less. Unless you are retiring, you are unlikely to know a year out about a change because either you aren’t currently looking, or that irresistible opportunity hasn’t come to you (yet).

I have several current and former client schools with Directors of Advancement serving in their role — at that school — for more than a decade. Some more than 20 years. They’ve “outlived” Heads, many Board chairs, and countless key leaders and colleagues. The level of institutional knowledge they hold, and the deep and long-standing relationships they have built and enjoy with donors, faculty, and students is deep and vast. After putting in so much time, there is simply too much that lives exclusively in their heads–beyond a well-kept database. (I still recall the way every Board chair I have ever worked with takes their coffee. Ok, that’s not essential information and I frankly wish I could off-load it and make space but it’s there. How about you?)

More stunning news. Another study reveals an “alarming” trend on the horizon for nonprofit organizations around the U.S:

“… 45% of responding nonprofit employees indicated that they will seek new or different employment in the next five years. Of that group, 23% said that nonprofits would not be among the types of organizations they intend to pursue.”

Source: be44c15caf

Ouch. If the research is to be believed, and close to half of our leaders are going to leave their jobs in the near term, and virtually no organization has a succession plan for their top leaders, never mind our positions, we clearly have a ticking time bomb here.

Five Suggestions for How to Not Make a Mess When You Leave

I’ve written about this problem and some of the ways we might be able to hang onto great advancement people, a bit longer. But once they choose to go, now we have a succession problem.

What can we do to reduce the chance that we’ll leave a giant hole in our program? How can we ensure that a process is laid out in advance so that in the event of our departure, sudden or planned, we haven’t created a mess that our colleagues, Heads, and successors will have to clean up? 

Here are some suggestions. My thanks to Mandy Pearce at Funding For Good, for her eye-opening and informative webinar, Succession Planning: Strategies That Work.

1. Raise the subject. Even if you have no current plans to move, you’re doing a real solid if you discuss this subject with your Head of School. The best time to plant a tree was yesterday, right? Have the first of a series of constructive conversations while there is still plenty of time, and no one is in a panic.

2. Ask smart questions. Here are some to start with:

– What can we do over the coming six months to prepare for an efficient leadership transition, even if it occurs at a later time? 

– What do we know to be true about your role and responsibilities that are unique to your position?

– What do we feel are the biggest challenges we should expect related to your transition?

– How might your transition impact the other staff, the Board, programs, families, and the school’s ability to fulfill donor obligations?

– What are some key strategies we can implement now to reduce confusion during a potential transition?

3. Consider who might be able to fulfill some of our responsibilities in the near term. Is there anyone who can cross-train or shadow you to better understand some of what only you do?

4. Make the invisible visible.

– Where are essential documents and records stored, beyond the database? (My colleague and I wrote an “exit document” for our successors, and in it was the storage location of the donor sign that was not to be installed until their student graduated. She never would have even known to look for that.)

– What are protocols you use that only you know?

– Which trusted vendors are in your contact list? 

5. Name the process.

– What will be the protocol for announcing your departure?

– Who will stand in for you in the interim?

– How will the position be posted?

If you can help engineer even a few of these steps, you’ll be leaving things in far better shape than if you can’t or don’t.

Think this is not strictly “your job”?  Maybe. But I will argue that real leadership is making it easier for those who follow you to succeed. You’ll truly be leading your organization towards better planning for others beyond yourself.  Think admission, business manager, IT, college counseling.

The excellent advancement professionals I know live their lives and run their programs with high integrity. They also put up with nonsense longer than they should because they are loyal and conscientious and refuse to leave things a mess. Taking these steps will make it possible to leave when you need to. And it will create a smoother and healthier way out the door.

And check out Funding For Good. Lots of excellent resources on a range of topics.


Barbara Barron

[email protected]

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About the Author

BARBARA BARRON is one of the most respected and highly sought-after independent advancement professionals in the country, having worked with dozens of schools in every corner of the United States.

She has raised over $20 million for schools where she served as the Director of Development. Barbara is a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and presenter who currently advises dozens of schools in various capacities. She is considered a thought leader in the world of advancement, with her writing widely shared by professionals in development offices worldwide.

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