Nonprofit Leadership Succession-Passing the Baton

Community based nonprofits function most effectively when they build a culture of shared leadership, where the development of new leaders on both the board and staff levels is ongoing. Since long term mission impact should be the goal of every nonprofit, it’s important to explicitly acknowledge that key board and staff leaders only serve the organization for a relatively limited period of time and that developing systems, plans, and processes to build new leadership needs to be part of the organization’s ongoing work.

A useful analogy in leadership development and succession is that of a relay race, where individuals subjugate their own personal goals for the benefit of the group, employing teamwork to pass on the “leadership baton.” While strong individual efforts are helpful, overall success is far more dependent on team development and the skill in which the baton is passed between team members. So, while dynamic board and staff leaders are obviously important, long term organizational sustainability is more dependent on developing bench strength and thoughtfully planning for succession at all levels.

On the board front, the easiest way to embed the “passing the baton” philosophy in organizational culture is to clearly define the roles, expectations and leadership of committees, and be explicit about the length of leadership terms. The Executive and/or Governance Committees should be charged with building the appropriate structure and an accountable system to achieve stated goals and keep people moving through positions of leadership. Ongoing communication from board leaders of the expectation that all members be willing to take on a leadership role during their terms will further ingrain the leadership pipeline concept in board culture.

The role of the staff leader in building long term sustainability revolves around developing a sense of shared ownership on their management teams and prioritizing professional development opportunities for emerging leaders. Organizational needs are constantly evolving, and a mission based leader should always be on the lookout for opportunities where personal and professional development can occur for promising staff members.

While increasing service demands and pressing capacity issues obviously draw the focus of most nonprofits towards short term needs, it’s also important to recognize the risk organizations take in ignoring longer term sustainability issues. So, it’s incumbent on staff and board leaders to keep the issue of eventually replacing themselves as an ongoing agenda item, as too many nonprofits end up facing crises they could easily have avoided if passing the baton was better ingrained in their culture.


Starboard’s Consulting Partner, Scott Schnapp, authored this post. For more board governance advice, visit the blog section of our website: or let us know how we might help you by reaching out now.