nonprofit and social enterprise succession planning

Are you thinking about leaving? Image via Hippie Bowman 

by Janine Vanderburg, President/CEO, Joining Vision and Action

About a decade ago in the pre-recession years, I was leading a workshop on succession planning for nonprofit sector leaders. After invoking the JVA Vegas

[1] ground rule, I asked participants to introduce themselves and why they were in the workshop.

Responses ranged from:

“I’m planning to leave my nonprofit organization and want to leave it in a healthy and sustainable place so want to start thinking about succession planning now.”

To the more frequent responses:

“I have given notice [anywhere from a year to a month] and I want to know what I should do next.”

To this one…

“My last day was yesterday.”

While the nonprofit sector has been relatively stable post-recession, in the last two years, transition is up, 19% according to the most recent survey.

And the conversations that I’ve been having with friends in the sector lately seem to be somewhat of a déjà vu of that long ago workshop. Boomer-aged friends are thinking of “retiring” from current nonprofit executive director jobs, while still wanting to contribute their time, talent and life experience in some way. Other friends and colleagues are thinking more about “what’s next?” and how they can have an impact, have more impact, or better use their talents.

The key questions I encourage people to think through are:

  • Do you want to stay in the sector or leave it?
  • What do you love doing? Want to do more of?
  • What do you never want to do again?
  • Where can you add value?
  • What do you still want to learn?

There are two books that I’ve been recommending for some time, and one that I’ve just added to the list. Each is in its own way outstanding at helping you answer the “what’s next?” question.

Go Put Your Strengths to Work

This book by Marcus Buckingham is one of the series of StrengthsFinder books that we love at JVA. This is my favorite because of the detailed exercises. One of my favorites is the “Weakness Test” on page 170, where you evaluate specific tasks against statements like “I look for ways to avoid doing this type of activity,” and “I keep thinking of other people who can do this type of activity instead of me.” Yup. While intended to help readers better use their strengths on the job, and reinvent their jobs to focus more on their strengths, it’s also a great resource for helping you think through what an ideal next career would be.

Encore Career Handbook

I love this book (and not only because I’m quoted in it about the demand for jobs in fundraising—page 29). Geared to people looking for encores in the social sector in the second half of life, it’s a great read and guide for people of all ages who are looking for jobs that combine passion, purpose and paycheck. It’s filled with great resources, exercises and tips for everything from figuring out how much money you really need to networking to how to write the perfect email to ask for introductions.

Born for This

This latest addition to books I’m recommending to friends who are thinking about doing something different. The subtitle tells it all: How to find the work you were meant to do. It focuses on finding the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at and what you can make a living at—something author Chris Guillebeau calls the Joy-Money-Flow model, or “Winning the Career Lottery.” I read it in one sitting, and immediately started buying and recommending to others.


So why spend this time thinking this all through before you leave your current position?

A friend of mine who retired from his executive director job six months ago said it best: “You can only play so much golf.”


[1] JVA’s Vegas ground rule: We ask everyone to raise their hands and agree that “whatever happens in Vegas (the workshop), stays in Vegas!”