When Crisis Comes with the Territory

Harry Hutson, guest blogger, lives in Chapel Hill and is a board member supporting Urban Ministries of Durham and the New England Center for Children. A previous book, with Barry Dym, is Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations: Lessons from the Third Sector.

Leadership succession is inevitable in nonprofit (actually, all) organizations. It can be unexpected and chaotic, or the opposite—sclerotic and overdue. At either end of the scale, it’s a crisis.

But it’s a crisis that boards can avoid. In our book, Navigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most, Martha Johnson and I tell stories of leaders’ courage and determination in extremis—when unexpected events threatened the existence of the agencies or companies they happened to be leading at the time. Think of Hurricane Katrina. 9/11. The financial meltdown of 2008. When Rogue Waves such as these threaten your ship, the time you may have had to get ready has already run out.

Leadership succession can feel like a huge storm for a small boat to weather, but it’s in the forecast. As a board member or funder, you know the day will come when a new leader will replace who’s in charge now. You have some control as to the timing of events. And you can always, always, shore up and get stronger.

Trisha Lester, head of the NC Center for Nonprofits, reports that 60% of US nonprofits will experience senior succession in five years. But most boards in NC are not well prepared, she says, even though a majority of executive directors and nonprofit CEOs want robust succession plans.

What’s going on?

I have several hypotheses. One is that boards are more focused on operations than leadership, because programs are easier to manage than personalities. Another is that board work for struggling agencies is a hamster wheel of fundraising—there’s no time to attend to medium-term issues without short-term survival. A darker hypothesis is that boards—and groups in general—are conflict averse and unlikely to weigh in when there is a lack of consensus about how well management is performing. Sometimes, in the interests of continuity (of relationships?), long-term incumbents are allowed to hang on when they really should move on.

But none of these reasons has any bearing if stakeholders stay on the sidelines. Board members are accountable, first and foremost. Institutional funders interested in sustainment are also on the hook. But so are nonprofit leaders. Who wants to feel responsible when there is a sudden departure from the executive team and organizational momentum is stalled? The opportunity costs, in terms of donations or deliverables, can be enormous. Or worse, who wants to be heartbroken when clients are underserved—because leadership underperformed?

Succession planning (and leadership development, its corollary) is core to capacity building in an organization. Said differently, we care about leadership because it multiplies the impact of the time, talent, and treasure dedicated to a cause we deeply care about.

Lori O’Keefe, president and CEO of the Triangle Community Foundation, is mindful that we live in a region of distinct communities without deep-pocketed philanthropists. Perhaps that’s a good thing. We can do this ourselves. We can build a culture of nonprofit excellence right where we live—with succession planning on the table and leaders on the chairs.

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