How to Plan for the Absence of a Nonprofit Executive Director

by | Apr 9, 2022 | Strategic Planning

“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 ED. They often take their place on the governing board and leave the day to 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 ED. 

“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.” (

Nonprofit boards must proactively address the realities of planned absences and emergencies that render an ED unavailable. 

Before an organization can create a plan to address an ED’s absence, leaders must first define varying levels of “absence.”

      • Unexpected short-term absence (I.e., minor illness, injury, family situation
      • Planned short-term absence (I.e., vacation, medical leave)
      • Unexpected long-term absence (I.e., serious illness, injury, crisis
      • Planned long-term absence (I.e., sabbatical, extended medical leave, caregiving for loved one)
      • Unexpected permanent absence (I.e., serious illness, injury, or death)
      • Planned permanent absence (I.e., resignation, retirement)

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

      • How much notice was given?
      • How long the ED will be unavailable?

“Out of more than 500 respondent organizations to Nonprofit HR’s 2021 Nonprofit Talent Retention Practices Survey, 80% revealed that they do not have a formal retention strategy. As of late 2021, there were over 500,000 nonprofit sector jobs waiting to be filled.” 


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 essentially abdicating their legal and ethical duties.

It is crucial to note that a succession plan is more than a written document or checklist.  A succession plan requires consistent communication and intentional action of the board and staff. All team members should have a copy of the plan and know how to “initiate it” if necessary. 

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

      • Legal Compliance 
      • Roles and responsibilities of key decision-makers
      • Access to the organization’s property and accounts
      • Internal and external communication plans
      • Onboarding an interim ED or successor with intent

Unless the board has established a special committee to oversee the ED work or succession plan, it is the executive committee’s job to lead decision-making in moments of transition.

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