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How to plan for the absence of a nonprofit executive director

A woman holds a tablet while giving a presentation to two individuals

“The board of directors is responsible for selecting, supervising, and supporting the Executive Director (ED).”

A version of that one simple statement is found in the job description of nonprofit board members across the nation. However, many board members possess a limited understanding of what it means to “select, supervise, and support” the nonprofit executive director. They often take their place at the governing board and leave the day-to-day management in the capable hands of the ED.

As an ED’s workload grows, so does the board’s responsibility. One of the most challenging tests a board can face is the absence of the nonprofit executive director.

“45% of nonprofit employees who participated in the 2020 Nonprofit HR survey indicated that they intend to seek new or different employment by 2025. Nearly 23% of those respondents indicated that they do not intend to pursue a new job within the nonprofit sector.” (Source.)

Nonprofit boards must proactively address the realities of planned absences and emergencies that render an ED unavailable. But, before an organization can create a plan to address an ED’s absence, leaders must first define varying levels of “absence.” Absence can either be planned or unexpected, and the timeline varies from short-term, to long-term, or permanent. These reasons can range from taking sick leave or vacation, to personal situations such as medical leave, resignation, or even death.

Indicators for the states of “absence” typically depend on two key factors:

  1. How much notice was given?
  2. How long will the ED be unavailable?

Ensuring a smooth transition of the nonprofit executive director

The adage “plan for the worst but hope for the best” rings true for nonprofit leaders. The absence of an ED can create chaos and place the organization’s assets and mission at risk. Boards who fail to recognize and respond to the threat of an ED’s absence are abdicating their legal and ethical duties. One tool to subvert these issues is a succession plan.

A succession plan is more than a written policy or checklist. Thorough plans require consistent communication and intentional action of the board and staff. All team members should have access to the plan and know how to initiate it if necessary.

A well-crafted succession plan should address the following five priorities:

  1. Legal compliance
  2. Roles and responsibilities of key decision-makers
  3. Access to the organization’s property and accounts
  4. Internal and external communication plans
  5. Onboarding an interim ED or successor with intent

Learn how to develop an effective succession plan, and explore other steps to prepare for the absence of an ED by attending Candid’s webinar: Succession Planning Strategies that Work, on Thursday, March 24, from 2:00-3:30 p.m. ET. Presented in partnership with Funding for Good.


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