What is Succession Planning?

When we think of ‘succession planning’, most people think of a family business. We often hear about families trying to decide ‘who gets what’ or who will take over when the parents die or retire. However succession planning is much more that this. If your club is serious about succession planning, you need to disregard this common perception and think about succession planning in a broader way.

Succession planning is about looking at where your club has come from, where it is now, where it needs to go and what your club can do to get it there. Ultimately, succession planning should help you achieve the club’s objectives over the next five, 10 or 15 years by ensuring that your club has the right volunteers with the right skills in the right positions at the right time.

It is about putting a system in place to ensure that when someone leaves (such as the club president, a coach or the canteen manager) the club is not left with a massive black hole of knowledge and expertise and that there is someone in the wings ready to step up into that role. It is not just about replacing the missing volunteer however. (In the business world this would be called simply ‘replacement management’.) There is more to it than that. It is about knowing what skills or expertise are needed to fill key roles within the club, now and in the future, and making sure that others within the club possess these skills and knowledge so there is someone to fill the void if that key member has to retire. It is about identifying, recruiting, retaining, valuing, developing and preparing volunteers so that the club has a depth of knowledge and a pool of ready and able volunteers. In doing this, the club ensures that transitions are smooth as people come and go and it can continue to meet its strategic objectives into the future.

The succession planning process can be broken down into five key steps. They are:

    • Examine your club’s position (current needs, critical roles and expected vacancies)
    • Identify skills required to fill critical roles in your club;
    • Assess the skills gap in your club and identify potential successors;
    • Develop and prepare potential successors; and
    • Evaluate your succession plan.

Why is this Important for your Club?

It is important for your club to succession plan because it:

    • Enables your club to share the load among volunteers and avoid volunteer burnout.
    • Allows a smoother handover of key positions.
    • Improves your volunteer ‘bench strength.
    • Creates a more appealing environment for volunteers.
    • Allows your club to deliver better services, improving the club culture.

In most small communities across NSW, there are club presidents, secretaries or board members who find they have to stay in the role much longer than they wanted because there is simply no one to take over from them. These volunteers are often doing far too much work for one person for far too long. They become the lynchpin in the club – they hold all the vital knowledge and don’t feel they have anyone to share the load. This can sometimes lead to these volunteers becoming exhausted and resentful. When it comes time for them to leave, it can mean the club simply collapses because there is no one prepared to step up to the role. Even though there may be someone willing to take over, the task of taking over is often too great and their lack of skills or knowledge prevents them from doing so.

As we know, sports clubs play a vital role in rural communities and it is in everyone’s interest if these clubs can survive and thrive in to the future. In order for this to happen, clubs need a strong depth of capable volunteers. This does not just happen. Clubs need to be proactive and plan for it, instead of waiting for that lynchpin to leave and only then doing something about it. It is a little like that expression ‘a team is only as good as its bench’. If a team plays in a grand final match and one of their star players goes down with a major injury, it is vital that there is someone on the bench that can easily run onto the field and fill the gap. They need to know what is required of them in that position. They need to have had training there and they need to be able to fit in well with the players around them so that the combinations are effective. Without this, your team is not entirely whole and often will not stack up against the opposition. Succession planning is ultimately the process of improving your ‘bench strength’.

There is another key reason that clubs should begin succession planning. As it becomes harder and harder to attract and maintain volunteers, succession planning can help clubs to be a more appealing and rewarding environment for volunteers. Succession planning encourages targeted recruitment of volunteers, investment in developing volunteers’ skills and valuing their contribution. It also allows volunteers to see a clear path for progression through the club. This is beneficial as it avoids them getting bored in their roles, allows them to gain a broad experience of the club and encourages a more diverse group of volunteers. It can also avoid the senior club members being in the same role forever which potentially creates a stagnant, rigid and unappealing club culture for volunteers (especially young volunteers).

Finally, succession planning is important because it can help sports clubs to better achieve their strategic goals. Skilled, capable and prepared volunteers help the club to deliver better services to its members, ultimately creating a more positive club culture.

Benefits of a Succession Plan

Some of the benefits of club succession planning are that:

It provides –

    • Continuity for the club at times of volunteer turnover and minimises disturbance to club activities.
    • Recognition and reward for long serving volunteers as they become mentors to new volunteers and can share their knowledge.
    • A clear plan for volunteer progression and replacement so that clubs do not have to do it in the middle of a crisis.

It encourages –

    • Clubs to identify critical roles within the club, skills required to carry out these roles and potential volunteers who possess these skills.
    • Clubs to think about what skills/knowledge/volunteers they may need in the future and to begin planning for this.
    • Clubs to assess what knowledge, skill and expertise gaps exist within the club.
    • Clubs to examine and assess the current makeup of their volunteers which leads to more thoughtful recruitment and can create a more diverse volunteer base.
    • The development and retention of talented volunteers in the long-term.
    • Information sharing and record keeping which avoids the loss of critical information (such as member databases, club networks, event timetables etc) when key volunteers move on.
    • Ongoing review and evaluation which ultimately improves the overall management of the club.

It Improves –

    • The recruitment process for key positions which could lead to volunteers being more engaged in their roles because they are more appropriately suited to the position.
    • Volunteer access to training and development opportunity.
    • The leadership qualities of volunteers.
    • The morale and commitment of volunteers.

It also –

    • Minimises volunteer burnout because volunteers are not ‘stuck’ in the same role forever without anyone to take over from them.
    • Motivates volunteers because they can see a pathway of development and progression and they feel more nurtured.
    • Creates opportunity for young people to get more involved in decision-making, take on more responsibility and become more connected to their club.


There are a number of pitfalls when trying to develop a succession plan. Most can be avoided easily. These challenges will vary depending on your community and the specific needs and characteristics of your club and its members. Below is a list of common obstacles organisations face:

Your club might face difficulty in succession planning if:

    • Your succession plan involves too much administration and creates too much work for volunteers;
    • Club managers get stuck on traditional views about who can hold key leadership positions in the club and don’t consider alternatives (for example, young people);
    • Not all Board/Committee members are committed to the idea of succession planning and don’t understand the benefits, which leads to a superficial approach;
    • Recruitment and appointment of volunteers to key positions is not transparent (i.e. clearly outlined/documented and communicated to club members) and therefore becomes political;
    • Personalities, egos or individual needs get in the way of decision-making;
    • The club has poor record keeping, resulting in a succession plan that is not clear or well documented and that volunteers don’t know exists;
    • Volunteer promotions are based on tenure instead of competency, skill or talent. Often volunteers who have been in the club a long time take on key positions without having the skill or knowledge to carry out the role successfully because committees feel they ‘deserve a go’.
    • Club members and/or the board are fearful of change;
    • People are underestimated or left out because they do not fit club culture;
    • The club fails to provide adequate training and development for volunteers;
    • The club has a limited volunteer base;
    • The club has limited access to resources to invest in the succession planning process;
    • The committee or board feel the need to succession plan is not immediate, leading to lots of talk and not a lot of action;
    • You fail to continually review and improve the succession plan; and/or 
    • The club adopts a rigid and inflexible approach that is not tailored to specific needs of the club and individuals within it.

Not all of these challenges will be relevant to your club.  However, think about which challenges or obstacles your club may face and discuss strategies to minimise – or where possible, eliminate – the impact of these obstacles before starting on your succession plan. Use this Table – Possible Challenges for Succession Planning (30 KB) to record these ideas.