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Mayes Wilson & Associates

Don’t forget donors when doing succession planning

Julie Whelan Capell | 

Here at MWA, we get a lot of questions about succession planning. It’s one of those things that’s on everyone’s “to do” list, but never seems to get done. We’ve written about the risks of not planning for board succession and posted a straightforward guide to succession planning. 

One aspect that isn’t talked about much is the intersection between succession planning and fund development.  I’m not talking about putting together a series of slick emails and letters introducing your new CEO to your supporters. I’m talking about PLANNING so that donors–especially your major donors–have multiple connections to your organization BEFORE your leader is walking out the door.

Here are some ways to ensure that your organization’s connections to its most important supporters don’t disappear when your leader moves on.

Involve board members in calling donors

Calls can be to thank donors, invite them to events, do wellness check-ins, etc. It’s a good idea to train your board members ahead of time so they have talking points and know how to ask good, open-ended questions to get to know the donors and their values better.

Give board members limited access to your donor database

This may be a controversial recommendation, but my take on it is that your board has fiduciary and governance responsibilities. If you don’t trust them with donor information, maybe they shouldn’t be on the board. Make sure you provide training on the database, explain donor privacy, and have permission levels set for each person. Many databases allow you to assign access to the records only of certain people the board member is assigned to cultivate. Ask board members to put their own notes in the database after each donor contact. That way everyone on the team can follow the progress of the relationship.

Bring board members along on visits to major supporters

I consider it a best practice to always have two people on important donor visits. In practice, I often see the CEO going alone. Even if the board member doesn’t want to do a lot of the talking, just having them there is very valuable. They can observe how the CEO approaches the relationship and makes the ask. And you’ll be creating a new connection between the donor’s and your organization.

Strengthen connections between your program and development activities

Program staff can be passionate advocates for your organization and donors love to hear their front-line client stories. So try involving them in donor phone calls and meetings . . . always after providing training.


Making sure relationships with donors involve more than the executive or fund development director is a practice in organizational stability. Start now. There are only positive benefits for the donor and the organization to have deeper relationships with your team.

What other ways have you found to connect donors to your organization beyond the CEO? If you need help getting training for your board or staff on creating effective donor relationships, or on succession planning in general, give us a call, we’re here to help!

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