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New Bridgespan Group Study Offers A Wakeup Call for Nonprofit Succession Planning
The Bridgespan Group

November, 2015

In a new paper, “The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit” published on, The Bridgespan Group addresses the number one organizational concern expressed by nonprofit boards and CEOs year after year—succession planning. The study asserts that “nonprofit leaders are missing an answer sitting right under their nose: the home grown leader.”
According to the groups’ latest research, only 30 percent of senior roles in the social sector were filled by internal promotion in the past two years—about half the rate of the for-profit world. Bridgespan partner and co-author of the paper, Kirk Kramer said, “Our study surfaced a broad gap in leadership development: promising leaders, frustrated at the lack of professional development and mentoring, are not staying around long enough to move up in the ranks. CEOs want to exit too because their boards aren’t supporting them, a syndrome that is coming at a significant financial and productivity cost to organizations.”
Kramer’s co-author and Bridgespan partner Katie Smith Milway said, “While a certain amount of turnover is to be expected, the fact that one in four of our 438 survey respondents said they plan to leave their roles within the next two years, and that the largest source of replacement talent comes from other nonprofits, creates a turnover treadmill. It exacerbates the succession planning problem at a time when the sector needs capable leaders more than ever.”
Specifically, the study shows that coming right after the issue of low compensation (cited by 57 percent), 50 percent of respondents pointed to lack of career development opportunities as cause for their departures from their organizations. Others cited lack of mentorship and support, particularly from their boards. Only 17 percent indicated desire for a different work environment as the reason for moving on.
According to Bridgespan manager Libbie Landles-Cobb, one of the co-authors, “More than 50 percent of our survey respondents ranked their organizations less than six out of ten on their ability to develop staff. When asked why, they reported lack of adequate talent management processes and prioritization.”
Finally, the report talks about the role funders can play in fostering the inside answer to succession planning—homegrown leaders. “Effective talent development calls for capacity investments in recruiting, training and performance measurement, yet 58 percent of our survey respondents had not received any funding earmarked for talent development in the past two years,” said Landles-Cobb.
“Our research and experience indicate that the solution to this problem, while addressable, requires the skill and will to build an ecosystem for leadership development within organizations, involving senior management, boards and funders,” said Kramer.


Leadership Turnover By the Numbers
% of total C-suite positions filled in the past two years, by reason position was vacant
  • 13% of positions were new roles
  • 25% of existing C-suite leaders left their organizations
    • 6% retirement
    • 7% asked to leave
    • 10% left for another nonprofit organization
    • 2% left the nonprofit sector
  • 5% positions were open due to other reasons
% of positions filled by where new hire came from
  • 44% from other nonprofits
  • 29% from internal promotion
  • 20% from for-profits
  • 5% from government
  • 2% other

About The Bridgespan Group

The Bridgespan Group ( is a nonprofit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. We collaborate with social sector leaders to help scale impact, build leadership, advance philanthropic effectiveness and accelerate learning. We work on issues related to society’s most important challenges and to break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Our services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.


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