10 Steps for a Kick-Ass Emergency Succession Plan


pantsMost people who know me know that I have only one pair of shoes and one belt.  They are both made of vegan fake leather and look crappy. That’s because I got married and thus no longer have any incentives to look attractive. Plus, we Executive Directors of small nonprofits must project the aura of scrappiness and frugality.

One morning, though, I had an important meeting and could not find my belt. I spent thirty minutes looking for it, getting more and more frantic. With no time to run out and buy a new belt, I went about my day with a dress shirt tucked into my beltless pants like an animal. An animal!

What’s the point of this story? The ED or CEO of a nonprofit is kind of like a beat-up leathery old belt that holds up the pants of the organization. And like in my wardrobe, there is only one. Life is unpredictable, oftentimes cruel, and yet filled with unimaginable beauty. But usually it’s just cruel. Who the heck knows what could happen? (Which is why I wrote this letter to my newborn son in case I died early, with important life lessons like “be nice to people” and “recycle”). In the terrible worst-case scenario, the ED could get into a tragic accident and die or otherwise become incapacitated. In the best scenario, he could be offered his dream job of starring in a vegan culinary travel show where he eats and drinks his way around the globe. In either of these scenarios, or a variety of other stuff that could happen, the organization is now left without a leader.

That is why it is so important for all organizations to have ESP (Emergency Succession Plan). Now, there are all sorts of ways to go about developing this plan. For the ESP, though, it is more important to have a decent plan right away than a perfect plan that could take a while to create. Which is why I jot down these helpful tips. Follow them and in no time your organization will have a workable plan, just in case the Food Network calls your ED:

Step 1: Emergency succession planning is really the board’s responsibility, so add this to your next board meeting agenda. Seriously, if you don’t have an ESP in place, put this on your agenda. Assign the task to a board member to lead, preferably someone who has HR experience and understanding of the staffing structure.

Step 2. With the assigned board member in the lead, form a committee. Like with other committees, no one is going to want to join. You can attract them by calling it the Emergency Succession Plan Task Force (ESPTF) and coming up with a cool code name for the work at hand using Greek letters and mythological figures, like “Operation Alpha Omega Morpheus”

Step 3: The ED may be the one to push for an ESP and may join the task force, which is great, but if not, someone from the ESPTF should sit down with her and explain the need for the plan and get her perspective on the important things about her work that the task force should take into consideration, along with her thoughts on who may be potential candidates to serve as acting ED in case something happens to her. If she starts freaking out and crying, wondering if she did something wrong, refer her to this blog post.

Step 4: The ESPTF should define the skills and experience needed in an acting ED to help the organization remain functional during the transition. While every nonprofit is unique, there are certain skills that all EDs have in common: Breaking up fist-fights among staff, going to meetings, making inspiring speeches, herding cats, and begging for money.

Step 5: Define a sequence of actions that the board should take in the case Operation Morpheus must be activated. Depending on whether the situation is temporary or permanent, these actions may include calling an emergency meeting, choosing an acting ED, forming a hiring team, changing signing authorization for checks, panicking, etc.

Step 6: Determine a chain of succession, kind of like we do for our government. If something happens to the President, then the Vice President is in charge, and next is the Speaker of the House, etc. You may have a Deputy Director who may take over temporarily, followed by the Director of Operations. Most nonprofits, though, don’t have clear-cut positions like that. At VFA, for example, our succession chain may look like “Program Director/Office Manager, followed by Development Director/Janitor.”

Step 7: Identify important people you need to notify. These include program officers, major donors, contract monitors, partner organizations, clients, etc., Figure out who would be in charge of talking to whom. People might start freaking out, especially if they learn about things second-hand, so it is good to have clear and prompt and personal communication.

Step 8: Work with the ED and other staff to compile copies of important stuff that the acting ED needs to do his work, for example IRS determination letter, bylaws, board meeting minutes, EIN, past 990s, audited financial statements, business license, charitable solicitation license, office lease, bank info and contact, insurance policy number and contact, office security info and contact, office safe combo, computer passwords, water cooler delivery schedule, etc. We EDs tend to hold all this information in our heads, so it’s good to write it down.

Step 9: Finalize the plan and get to the board to approve. Do not make the plan public, or you might freak out people further; keep it among the board and key staff. Designate a board member (usually the chair) to hold a copy of the plan in a secure location away from the office. Another copy should be held at the office in a secure location where no one would look; at the VFA office, that location would be the fresh vegetable compartment of the fridge.

Step 10: Schedule a time once a year to update and revise the plan. Also, update it when there’s significant change in the organization’s structure or staff.

I hope that’s helpful. Let me know what your organization does and if there are steps I left out. Of course, the ESP is just for that, emergencies, and hopefully you never have to activate Operation Morpheus. All organizations should also be working on long-term succession planning, ensuring staff are developing skills and experience to move up the ladder, that there are opportunities for cross-position training, etc. Only by being thoughtful and diligent can we all keep our pants up.