Ah, the proverbial bus. This concept was one of the first things I learned about when I started volunteering with a youth group when I was 14. The program director told us this story:

One day, a man was walking home after a long day of work and was contemplating his success there. He was a nonprofit fundraising coordinator (or something similar) and was in charge of ensuring that fundraising went smoothly year to year. He had started as a receptionist, greeting visitors but the executive director started giving him more responsibility as he became more and more successful building relationships for the nonprofit.

He was good friends with all of the biggest donors and he was really proud of the fact that lots of them said they donated to the nonprofit because of him. He was excited because he was almost done applying for a massive national grant and he was about ready to move on to double checking his work against some old program outcome files he dug out of a file cabinet.

As he was crossing the street, he was hit by a bus and died instantly.

Once the executive director of the nonprofit realized what had happened, she set to picking up the slack. She went to the man’s computer to log in and found that it was password protected. She searched everywhere to find it but she couldn’t and ended up hiring a company to get into his computer.

While she was waiting to get into his computer, she started searching for a new fundraising coordinator to replace the man. Because the director didn’t have a job description of what the man did, she tried her best to create one based on what she thought he did. He was such a go-getter though that she was sure she missed some stuff. She was able to write a job description and eventually hire someone to take their place.

The story goes on to see the nonprofit begin to struggle financially because the personal connection that the biggest donors cared about was gone, they couldn’t complete the grant because there were no digital copies of the old program outcomes and the paper ones were destroyed, and the new fundraising coordinator struggled because the job description written by the director did not include everything that the previous man did.


Worst Case Scenario

So clearly this story is designed to highlight the worst of the worst that can happen when you have not done succession planning. Succession planning is the process of identifying, training and developing new leaders for the eventuality that old executives and leaders will leave, retire or pass away. The other part of this process involves making sure that everything is written down and detailed. The goal of doing this (and what the bus story demonstrates) is that you need to have the ability to operate with as few interruptions as possible if someone leaves the organization.

Yes, the bus story is a worst-case scenario, but you can imagine situations when the same principle applies:

  • You may be going on vacation for a few weeks and the nonprofit needs to distribute the work you do to other staff
  • You may get sick for a few days and have an important meeting you will have to miss
  • Another staff person may quit unexpectedly and do their best to burn bridges and sabotage you (I’ve seen it done!)
  • One of your staff may lose their password to their laptop and might not be able to get into their important files


Here are a few things that you can do to mitigate the damage that can come from this. Its all about being prepared!


Keep a record of what all staff are doing

I don’t mean this in a “big brother is watching” sort of way. I mean use a project management platform like Asana to keep everyone in the organization on the same page. That way, everyone knows what everyone else is working on and it also allows you to collaborate in a way that allows you to see what everyone worked on in the past. Asana has a free version but there are paid versions of project management software available as well.


Write out everything

Write out policies, job descriptions, notes from donor meetings, everything. Try to keep it as organized and up to date as possible. In the event that something happens, your successor will at least be able to look back at what you were working on. Update policies and job descriptions often so they are current.


Create digital copies of paperwork

Scanners are cheap and file cabinets take up too much space. There are even apps that will use your phone camera as a scanner and will upload documents to the cloud for you. Having paper copies of records is a good practice, but they are difficult to sort through and quickly find information. Digital solutions allow you to search via keyword, document type and more. This way, if the paper copy goes missing, you have a backup.


Back up everything securely

Things happen with technology. It can get stolen, corrupted, accidentally deleted or just lost. Backing up all computers regularly will decrease the effect of having a technology issue. Do this both via a cloud-based solution like Google and also via a USB or hard drive. Would you rather lose a week of work or months of it?


What Should You Do Right Now?

Ask yourself “Am I prepared for the bus?” Pick a staff person and ask “what if that person suddenly wasn’t with the organization anymore?” Would you be able to get into their computer to see their files? Would you know what they were working on and be able to pick it up yourself or delegate it? Would you be able to regain control of the part of the nonprofit they were responsible for in a timely manner?


If you have never done this before, you will probably find that there are some glaring holes that could be devastating if you don’t address them. Don’t worry though, NOW is the time to address those issues, not after the bus hits!

Build Your Donor List, No Matter Where You Are In The Process

Brandon Reed

Founder at Reed Community Consulting and NPO.lib

Brandon helps people help other people. He has over 10 years experience working with small and medium-sized nonprofits in two countries in many different sectors. He has worked at all levels of organization from entry-level service delivery up to the executive director and board president. This experience affords him insight for whole level management of an organization, which he transfers to his clients. In his free time, he likes to play volleyball and spend time gardening with his wife and dog.

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