Sustainable Leadership and Succession Planning – A Challenge for the Third Sector in Scotland

As a Strategic Partner of ACOSVO, Douglas Adam, Head of Livingston James’s Public and Not for Profit Practice attended their Annual Conference where Succession Planning was a hot topic.

Whilst Scotland’s third sector has an abundance of leaders who are good at formulating and motivating others to pursue a clear vision, evidence suggests that as a sector it is relatively poor at cultivating new leaders.

By relying on single ‘figure-head’ leaders, organisations are vulnerable to changes in leadership particularly given that succession planning appears to simply not be high enough on organisations’ agendas.

With the general consensus that ‘money follows relationships’ and ‘funders do not fund organisations, they fund people’ it is clear that both individuals and relationships are critical to third sector sustainability.  It is therefore important to consider the risks if key stakeholder/funder relationships reside with single leaders and the sector as a whole has not embraced succession planning.

With over 50% of third sector leaders expected to leave their role in the next five years, the development of the sector’s next generation of leaders will be critical to ensuring the long term sustainability of the sector.

Third sector organisations should continually assess business critical knowledge, both internally and externally, and proactively plan for the ‘unplanned’ both in terms of positive and negative change. Conversations between trustees and senior management where focus is placed on succession planning, short and long term planning, and nurturing and sustaining key stakeholder relationships should be encouraged. Such conversations are useful and easier to conduct when it is not urgent due to an unplanned loss of a key role, whether temporary or permanent.

As part of a more proactive approach to succession planning we would suggest lateral leadership will help:

  • Build capacity at all levels of the organisation
  • Provide the opportunity for increased autonomy and decision making
  • Create the time and space for development, learning and growth including a focus on both the short and long term
  • Support an environment of involvement, innovation and learning – don’t be afraid to create a culture where is it is OK to fail and sensible risks can be taken
  • Embed a impactful learning and development culture

Key considerations and questions the sector needs to ask itself include:

  • How do we make the environment attractive to current and future leaders?
  • How do we identify the next generation of leaders from both within and out-with the sector?

Adopting a more proactive and structured approach to succession planning will not only provide external funders with an increased level of assurance, but also ensure that both individual charities and the sector as a whole continue to prosper in a challenging and changing external environment.


Investing time, encouraging more devolved leadership, and embedding a culture of succession planning including appropriate processes and systems, including risk registers and staff development plans, will also ensure this important subject matter remains front and centre for all third sector organisations.

To discuss your third sector and not-for-profit recruitment needs, contact [email protected]


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