Millennial Cause-Leadership Tornado

Cause Leadership Tornado

If I told you that 94% of nonprofit Executive Directors are over 40, would you keel over in shock? 

I mean, we're talking a margin of error accounting for ED's who are UNDER 40! That's just rather insane. 

Well. The 2014 Board Source Governance Report was full of shocking and bizarre items like this - did you know 91% of board chairs are white? or that 89% of board members are over 40? or that watermelons are really a berry??. (The last factoid was one I remember vividly from my National Geographic World Magazine subscription, which I read voraciously as a child, but still - crazy, right? A BERRY?)

At any rate,  I, for one, think it's ridiculous that so few young people are represented in nonprofit leadership and governance. 

But let's take a second to talk about something EVEN MORE ALARMING (hard to believe, I know): only 34% of the organizations covered by the Board Source Report have a written succession plan. 

Given the fact that most ED's are over 40, this is completely and utterly insane. It would be insane no matter what age the exec happened to be, but in the situation we see now, we're really doing the social sector a serious disservice. 

A quick note to my friendly readers who are in their fourth decade. Look, if you're 40, I know you're not that old! I mean, I'm the one who choked on my tongue the other day when my friend had to gently remind me she was born in 1995 and had no idea what reference I was making to 80's sitcoms - (what is the world coming to when someone I'm talking to doesn't understand the nuances of the relationship between DJ Tanner and Kimmy Gibbler??)...but for the sake of argument, let's just say that maybe it would be good to have more nonprofit executives and certainly to have nonprofit board members (give me that, at least!) who represent the under 40 crowd. OK? Can we agree on that premise, just for the sake of getting through this blog together? 

OK, now that we're on the same page, let's talk a little bit about succession planning.

Nobody seems to want to talk about it. It's like Executive Directors I've known and loved have thought of succession planning as writing out their own will and testament. As if creating a plan for passing the leadership baton when the time comes to move forward with one's life is like engraving one's own tombstone. That seems a me. What is it that makes succession planning so scary? So un-doable? So undesirable? 

Is it fear? Is it that we don't know what a succession plan even is? Is it that we think everybody else working in our nonprofits are a bunch of dummies who can't tell up from down and wouldn't be able to succeed a great leader anyway? 

Is it that nonprofits tend to be built around the cult of ONE person? Despite the governance structures and HR processes we (supposedly) put in place? We seem to be SOL when it comes to replacing our nonprofit leaders. Or planning for their graceful exits. Or shoring up the strength of our organizations to survive the wake of a transition (or to minimize said wake in the first place).

Succession planning is not impossible, or scary, or bad, or wasteful, or something you shouldn't be thinking about ALL THE FREAKING TIME! Of course you should! 

The way I see it, if we're honest, we can't keep living in a world where nonprofits with important missions are jeopardized every time an Executive Director transitions (which, apparently isn't often, according to Board Source, but which, inevitably will come!). We have to get smart, put on our big girl (or boy) panties and make a doggone plan. 

What can succession planning do for your organization? 

How about: empowering and investing in up and coming leaders? 

How about: delegating important responsibilities across the organization to free up executive leaders to think about and focus on the big picture, huge stuff that they need to focus on in order to grow? 

How about: investing in infrastructure, systems and processes to enable a nonprofit to survive without any single person currently making things work. 

How about: capacity. CAPACITY. 

See. When you start thinking about succession, about the future, about the "what if I were to move on from this place - what happens to all the things I manage right now? Who will write this report, or know how to do this process, or remember where the lock to the Post-It cabinet is?" Devotees will recall my dire experience with the otherwise lovely ED who locked the Post-It's away...and you will further understand how deeply this damaged my psyche, if you also realize that my brain functions entirely on Post-Its....

At any rate. You have to have a succession plan. Don't like it? Too bad. 

Yeah, I said it. TOO BAD! 

Get serious. Get honest. Get dreaming - what would you do, as a leader, if you could free your mind up a bit, delegate something, build something that will last beyond your tenure? 

Get thinking - what would you do as a practitioner - as a growing nonprofit leader - if your organization were willing to invest in you and your professional and personal development? Would you be willing to put in a few more years? Would you bring more of your passion and best-self to work? Would you invest right back into that organization with your loyalty and passion and time and smarts? 

This is a win-win-win-win situation. You win, if you're an ED and you need to find a way to transition without blowing up the world. You win, if you're a practitioner with your eyes on a bigger role and deeper impact. You win, if you're a nonprofit board member who doesn't want to have to pinch hit when the time comes for your ED to get on their merry way. You win, if you live in a society served by a bunch of strong nonprofit organizations who know what they will do when their current leadership moves on to the next adventure. 

I'm going to put up some resources about succession planning - both for current EDs and board members looking to create a plan - AND for existing nonprofit leaders and practitioners who would like to help create this plan. 

But before I do, I want to know your take on this. What do you think about the stats we see these days related to nonprofit leadership? What is your experience with nonprofit leadership transitions (or lack thereof)? Are you an ED ready to move on, but aren't sure what will happen to your legacy if you do? Are you a board member looking to create a little structure around things so you don't all go crazy if your ED decides to throw it all in and move to Alaska to be with the bears? Are you a practitioner who is looking for opportunities to develop your leadership potential and management skills? 

I want to hear from you. Comment here, or message me directly using the contact page. 

Sarai JohnsonComment