We were sitting in her office at the small conference table set aside for working and for difficult conversations. Like any busy CEO, every light on the desk phone was lit, her cell phone kept buzzing, and her walls were lined with photos of the smiling faces of volunteers, clients, and staff. This well respected and longtime nonprofit leader was taking time to sit with me and offer her heartfelt advice. And she was making a great case.
Those who most need to do succession planning, won’t. They won’t leave gracefully. They won’t leave without a fight. Her raised eyebrow indicated that I knew exactly what she meant. You don’t want to be a part of that, she said. Don’t do this work, was the clear message.
I’ve heard this fear before – even when it’s not spoken so directly. Nonprofit leaders are too competitive, too overworked, too self-important to take transition planning seriously. Their boards are too afraid to have the conversation and too unwilling to put the needs of the mission over their desire to sweep the topic under the rug.
And maybe, for some in our sector, this is the truth. Some leaders will stay until there is no way to leave without burning bridges. Some boards will turn a blind eye to the responsibility of their office. Those nonprofits will likely not recover from their leadership transition. Anyone who’s spent any time in, or paying attention to, our sector can name at least one scandalous ending of a nonprofit, where the real losers are those the organization was supposed to serve.
The best case scenario may be a limping along, then a short-lived replacement, and finally (hopefully) things get back on track. And in the meantime, good people and energetic missions get lost, stunted or forgotten. The public’s trust may be forever altered.
But I’m a crazy dreamer.
I believe that we can do better – I know that we can build organizations that foster abundant leadership and that push us to greater levels of service and to real social change. I believe in partnership, in honoring legacies, and in planning for the future we want to create, instead of just reacting to the one we stumble into one day.
It is more than belief. Clear planning and honest dialogue proves that dynamic organizations can transition smoothly, not simply surviving but recognizing change as an opportunity to thrive, grow and enhance their community position.
We don’t have to accept the fear default. Fear is not the option we choose when we stare down the social problems that we face everyday. It’s not the option we choose when people tell us that those problems can’t be solved. As a sector, we choose again and again to get messy and do life-changing work.
Let’s keep doing it – strengthening and supporting our leaders now while creating the leaders we’ll need next. That should be our default.