Succession Planning for ECBOs: Empowerment and Capacity-Building Tools

Ethnic community-based organizations (ECBOs) play a vital role in supporting and empowering their communities. However, the pressing needs of their daily operations often limit their capacity to plan for future leadership transitions. As the Karen Organization of San Diego (KOSD) highlights in this blog post, succession planning can be reframed as an opportunity for growth and empowerment. This blog explores how ECBOs can critically assess their organizational practices, foster the development of staff leadership, implement policies to help sustain their leaders, and ultimately embrace this essential strategy for long-term success. 

Succession planning is crucial for any organization’s survival, ensuring leadership continuity and mission resilience. Ethnic community-based organizations (ECBOs) serving refugee and newcomer communities require succession planning, but it often takes a backseat to pressing day-to-day concerns like addressing community needs, fundraising, staff supervision, and funder reporting. Even if an organization explores the possibility of succession planning, it can become an overwhelming list of tasks for executive directors, making it feel burdensome rather than inspiring. As a result, many organizations may be left without a plan.  

Imagine if we reconceptualized succession planning as an opportunity—an opportunity to critically examine organizational practices, nurture staff leadership growth, and establish structural avenues for leaders to rest and rejuvenate. This approach could offer an opportunity to further our organizations’ missions by cultivating leadership internally, equipping individuals to lead our organizations and take on additional civic responsibilities within the wider community. 

An Effective and Energizing Succession Planning Process

Succession planning is about preparing for leadership transition within an organization, including both planned and unplanned transitions. Good succession plans require long-term commitment to strategic planning and organizational capacity building. One way to kick off the process is by engaging the board and staff together in a facilitated conversation around the following questions:   

  • Why is it important for our organization to have a leadership succession plan?  
  • What are your hopes for this process?  
  • How can we collectively center our organization’s values in this process?  
  • As an individual, how would you like to be involved in this process?   

This conversation will align stakeholders on the importance of succession planning for the ECBO’s sustainability.
It is especially critical for ECBOs to involve their community leaders and members in this process because the idea of a succession plan may be uncommon within some cultures. Community members might misunderstand the purpose of the succession plan and think their director is tired or doesn’t want to work with them anymore. Thus, even if there are disagreements or misunderstandings in these early conversations, they are opportunities for growth.  

Phase 1: Define Essential Leadership  

Key goals for staff and Board discussion during this phase include the following: 

  1. Identify critical positions requiring successions strategies, including those whose absence would significantly impact operations and those presenting leadership growth opportunities.
  2. Determine the leadership required for each key role, considering the ECBO’s context and the communities to be served over the next five to ten years. Involve executive directors in conversations about their readiness for succession planning, inquiring about the conditions necessary for them to feel assured about transitioning out of their roles within the organization. Acknowledge that while some executive directors may embrace this dialogue, others may not be prepared for it. 
  3. Create a leadership talent pool by: 
    • Identifying internal candidates with leadership potential 
    • Implementing mentorship and development programs to prepare them for future roles through training, shadowing, and growth opportunities 
    • Developing a plan to move new people into leadership positions when others leave, whether their departure is planned or unplanned 


Phase 2: Evaluate Internal Practices for Leader Sustainability 

By taking a critical look at the ECBO’s policies and systems, the organization can identify areas that need to be strengthened to support the ECBO’s leaders and avoid burnout. Key discussion points include the following: 

  1. It’s important to evaluate existing policies and identify gaps in supporting and sustaining leaders. 
    • Ensure personnel policies support continued growth and development, and compensation policies allow staff to view the ECBO as a place for meaningful work that adequately supports their families. 
    • Consider implementing a sabbatical policy that allows leadership staff to take one to three months of leave for rest, reflection, and professional development. Sabbaticals provide opportunities to assess operational functioning and increase organizational capacity as the leadership team shares and understands the work in new ways. Many foundations offer grants to support sabbatical leaves for nonprofit executives. 
    • Foster an organizational culture that encourages and supports self-care by recognizing and addressing signs of burnout, promoting wellness, and advocating for mental health to maintain a balance between personal well-being and professional responsibilities. 
  2. We often think of leaders as the ones who are responsible for making sure that their staff is cared for and receives professional development. But executives also have these needs. Support leaders in setting their own leadership development goals, recognizing that self-care is the cornerstone of sustained impact, particularly for those in the high-stress environments of refugee resettlement and ECBOs. 


Phase 3: Create a Written Succession Plan 

Many details and tasks can go into this plan, such as updating job descriptions, reviewing and updating policies, and creating and updating checklists. A holistic view of the value of leadership succession can help make these tasks feel less tedious and more energizing.  

A written succession plan should also include:  

  • An emergency succession plan for unforeseen circumstances that require an immediate leadership change. Ensure the organization includes interim leadership arrangements and a communication plan.
  • A communication strategy to maintain transparency about the succession planning process with staff and stakeholders to foster an environment of trust and inclusivity. 
  • Plans for transition support, especially for an executive director transition. Develop a detailed transition plan that includes timelines, role responsibilities, and support mechanisms to ensure a smooth transition. Provide ongoing support to new leaders through coaching, mentoring, and access to external professional development resources, including funding to support this process. Evaluate the transition process to identify areas for improvement for future succession planning.  
  • A process for periodically reviewing and updating the succession plan. Recognize that succession planning is a dynamic process. Regularly review and update the plan to reflect changes in the organization’s structure, strategy, and external environment. The timeline for this can vary, but every six months is a good interval.  

Key Takeaways

The roles of leaders in refugee resettlement and ECBOs are undeniably critical and immensely demanding. Succession planning, sabbaticals, and self-care are not merely indulgences but crucial strategies for maintaining both the leaders and their missions. By embracing these practices, ECBO leaders can ensure the longevity of their impact, the resilience of their organizations, and most importantly, their own well-being. In the act of caring for themselves, they are also safeguarding the future of their communities.  

Additional Resources 

The following resources offer additional information on succession planning, sabbaticals, emergency planning, funding opportunities, and other support for nonprofit organizations:  


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