Audio Resource: Succession Planning at Animal Sanctuaries
Check out the following audio conversation between The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff and P.E.A.C.E. Canada about this topic!
You know, succession planning. It’s kind of the same block. It’s the same block of like, well, I don’t know when I’m going to stop doing it. That’s when, you know, because I’m so busy today and I’m so busy tomorrow and like, you know, but the more that you can even just very simply just start to picture, like, where do I where do I see myself at the end of all this?
00;00;21;27 – 00;00;49;04
And like, how do I get there and what needs to be in place? Then you don’t have to worry about there being this A physical and emotion reaction to prolonged, unmanaged workplace stress. crisis at the end of the your time at the sanctuary, you can just very comfortably transition the organization into its next step, which is so much better for everyone involved than kind of just dropping everything and running away screaming, which hopefully no one has ever done but in succession planning is also important as a matter of contingency planning.
00;00;49;04 – 00;01;12;00
You know, like what if you someone you just is no longer with the organization or like for whatever reason, you have no longer of access to that person then like maybe it’s the shelter manager or maybe it’s, it’s just these key organizational roles that, like, the organization would be very challenged to suddenly not have. So, like, I just, I think it’s just really important.
00;01;12;20 – 00;01;34;18
I know it’s hard to find the time to do it, but even if it’s very simple, even if you’re just like, I think in ten years I’m going to want to step down and find a replacement for me or like and like this is how I want it to go, even if you can just do that. And communicate it and be like, Hey, I’m thinking like, you know, I can do this for ten years or whatever and you’re transparent with people and you can really start to think through.
00;01;35;12 – 00;01;47;21
I think that really does make a big difference for the organization. And Amber wrote a really wonderful resource called A Founders Guide to Organizational Change.
00;01;47;29 – 00;01;48;12
00;01;48;21 – 00;02;00;21
Yeah. A Founders Guide to Organizational Change that really kind of tackles some of these issues and some of the ways that a sanctuary can practically work on them and resolve them.
00;02;02;15 – 00;02;42;22
I think one other thing is it’s sort of helpful to, you know, so like my background is caregiving. And so I totally understand that there’s always something, right? Like there’s always something that needs to be done. And it felt like there was always something that like wasn’t getting done because something else was getting done. And so I think all these things, succession planning, contingency planning, like tying it back to the residents can help make it not because it is important and I feel like that helps like emphasize when you really think about like what it does for the individuals to have this in place or to not have this in place.
00;02;43;04 – 00;03;24;05
Sometimes as what caregivers need to like get something done if that, if that makes sense because sometimes it feels like this other like administrative thing that’s like, you know, worst case, we’ll just figure it out. But it’s like but really, it does have a direct impact on the residents, whether it’s not being prepared for a certain type of emergency situation that comes up or not being prepared when there is some sort of like leadership change or a gap between people filling spots like that can have a really significant impact on care, like what people can do.
00;03;24;05 – 00;03;26;22
So I think tying it back to that is helpful.
00;03;27;27 – 00;04;02;07
Um, I was just going to, I’m trying to find my train of thought now that was like really, that was really good. Her with that particular thing is tying it back to the residents when it comes to things that seem like really dry paperwork but like, oh no actually. But I was kind of thinking with like the succession planning some of that one is particularly challenging a lot of times because you you go into something and I, you know, there’s a number of people have found the sanctuary where you think, I’m going to do this forever, you know, like this is this is what I meant to do and this is what I’m going
00;04;02;07 – 00;04;21;08
to do until, you know, like, I just can’t possibly do it anymore. Well, part of it is, like, well, that can’t possibly do it anymore. Can, like, you can’t you can’t, you know, know everything that might happen. And hopefully you’ll live wonderful, long, healthy lives. But things like happen and that’s part of that contingency. Like what if you become ill?
00;04;21;12 – 00;04;44;11
What if you become injured even? Or you have a family member whose you need to step back and take care of? There’s like all these different things. And one thing that can be really hard is letting go of those spaces too. And so sometimes it helps. Like if you’re in the early stages or you’re considering starting a sanctuary, like when is the best time to start like succession planning.
00;04;44;11 – 00;05;16;01
It’s like even before you’ve officially started it. Yeah, like as soon as possible. Like going in with a, you know, kind of a strategy in mind. Like it doesn’t have to be really intense, but just the idea of like this, I’m, you know, this is what I’m going to do and I know that there’s going to be, you know, a time where someone else is going to need to take on certain responsibilities and understanding that that there is no failure here in that like that, that it’s a positive thing.
00;05;16;09 – 00;05;40;12
It’s that like you are starting this really important thing and at some point like passing the baton to someone who has the skills to keep running with it. It’s actually really beautiful. It’s a really challenging thing. And so like just just coming to it at that point, it’s like succession planning. You stepping back does not mean failure. It can mean success.
00;05;40;12 – 00;06;01;22
It can mean like you did it. Like you’ve done this thing and you’ve set it up in such a way that it can now flourish, you know? So it’s just kind of like those thoughts. It’s scary. But as early as you can start thinking and even before you even started officially, the sanctuary like thinking in those terms can be really helpful.
00;06;01;22 – 00;06;22;11
And it can really, I think, help the Someone who starts an organization. A Founder may or may not also be the Executive Director of an organization. emotionally and because it’s it’s not easy ever, you know, even if it’s like, you know, it’s really necessary. And so starting early and start thinking about those things and just taking small steps even, you know, could be a big, big help there for everyone.
00;06;23;16 – 00;06;51;14
I feel like Tara and Amber did such a great job of pointing out the importance of focusing on the resident when it comes to when it comes to succession planning. I’m also glad that you mentioned the question of wills because that’s a highly emotional process for a lot of people. No one wants to contem
plate their own mortality, and I feel like succession can also have personal feelings creep in.
00;06;51;14 – 00;07;23;25
If it’s a discussion that’s being had organizationally, you know, you might get people who have feelings about that. It’s thinking, Are you trying to push me out? It can be. It can be a whole thing and it can be very emotional and very fraught. But I think fundamentally, if you’re going to the best lens potentially is to consider that you serve an organization that has a The stated goals and activities of an organization. An animal sanctuary’s mission is commonly focused on objectives such as animal rescue and public advocacy. and a vision, and it is that mission and vision that needs to have longevity.
00;07;24;06 – 00;07;53;21
And as an organization, you have a public trust. You hold a public trust, you’re accountable to the larger public, and you have to serve to the furtherance of your mission and vision before anything else. And it’s not personal. None of it is personal. When you when you make a will or when you make a A formal or informal plan of what happens when a Founder, Executive Director, or other major member of an organization leaves the organization or is incapacitated. or any of these kinds of measures, it’s your job to serve your organization, your organization’s mission to do these things.
00;07;53;21 – 00;08;18;16
And as much as it kind of speaks to think about potential things like mortality or you need to retire before you want to or, you know, even the sort of paranoid is really trying to get rid of me like it’s it’s not about you, it’s about mission, vision. And as Tara said, it’s about your residents fundamentally. But yeah.
00;08;18;16 – 00;08;50;29
And I think for us as me and my partner, the will thing only came up as an importance when we had children. And that made it important. And so I see I there’s this correlation with that with your individuals that you’re taking care of. And I think why this is such an important subject to me is because in our first year of operation, we had two sanctuaries closed and it had that burnout, A form of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder that can affect anyone serving individuals who have experienced or are currently experiencing trauma. situation where they were like they had no, no contingency planning in place, they had no succession planning in place.
00;08;51;08 – 00;09;08;21
It was literally like, We can’t do this anymore. We’re done. And it does create this panic because what happens to those individuals and a lot of sanctuaries are full, if not over full here in Canada, I don’t know, in the U.S., probably it’s pretty.
00;09;09;03 – 00;09;11;02
Probably the same. Yeah.
00;09;12;05 – 00;09;37;26
Roosters and potbelly pigs are, number one rehoming homing requests and everybody’s so full. I do feel making sure you have all your Unless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated duck breeds, not wild ducks, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource. in a row that’s An individual that seeks to eliminate the exploitation of and cruelty to nonhuman animals as much as possible, including the abstention from elements of animal exploitation in non-food instances when possible and practicable as well. The term vegan can also be used as an adjective to describe a product, organization, or way of living that seeks to eliminate the exploitation of and cruelty to nonhuman animals as much as possible (e.g., vegan cheese, vegan restaurant, etc.). enough to say is so important. And everybody is coming from this from the bottom of their hearts and in such a good space for why they want to help. But it is a hard job.
00;09;37;26 – 00;10;04;25
It’s very heartbreaking. It’s and it really goes into the mental fatigue that can go into it. And I know you also have a resource on that with the the the emotional impact. And we did discuss it in the webinar that we did together. So don’t think I don’t think it’s the other things that have happened to other species won’t happen to you with regards to reaching that point where you just can’t do it anymore.
00;10;05;02 – 00;10;26;10
So starting early, I love what you said with regards to Julia, with regards to do I think Amber, you said it actually too with like do it the start, do a lot of the paperwork, do a lot of like volunteer manuals, do all that stuff at the beginning when you just have like five individuals to take care of so that you can have all those locks in place.
00;10;27;19 – 00;10;28;22
It’s so important.
00;10;29;00 – 00;10;54;11
Well, I was going to say to Julia, you hit on something with that is like those feelings of being like, am I being pushed out or is it this like that’s very real. And it’s and it’s understandable to have those fears, as you know, like that’s very human. And one thing that can happen a lot, what’s challenging with succession planning is this merging identity for founders, which is like you are the sanctuary and it’s hard.
00;10;54;13 – 00;11;18;14
It’s an understandable, you know, enmeshment to happen because you put so much of yourself into it. And so like that can be really challenge, like letting go a little bit and all these things are normal to feel like I want, you know, founders to understand that even though it’s like, yeah, it is, it is important for you to like have the succession plan and to step away potentially at some point.
00;11;18;16 – 00;11;40;23
You know, it’s that’s it’s okay to have difficult feelings about it is but it’s like and just knowing that that’s normal and knowing like it’s normal but also processing that, it’s like you don’t want to be the sanctuary. Like, that’s not that is not the goal. It’s not going to be good for you. And ultimately for it. The sanctuary is, you know, I know that someone would want it.
00;11;41;01 – 00;12;29;07
And so learning is okay. Here’s a big thing, having outside interests. I know everyone’s listening and they’re like, what are those? We don’t have those. Sanctuary founders can’t have outside interests. So but I would really encourage, like anything you were doing beforehand or something, some even even something small, just finding something that brings you joy or peace outside of the work you specifically do for the sanctuary can start early in helping that later challenging process, you know, like help you start before it actually becomes that really big difficult moment where you’re learning, okay, it’s time.
00;12;29;07 – 00;12;40;26
It’s time for me to like start taking that step back. And if you have a few other things out there that also like, you know, give you life, you know, that can be really helpful.
00;12;41;02 – 00;12;49;17
So yeah, it’s helpful to know it’s actually a it has a term called is founder syndrome it’s a A non-governmental organization whose primary purpose is something other than selling goods or services. is.
00;12;49;19 – 00;13;07;19
Right is it can be really challenging I think we actually have like a list of like some in common. I love how we put like symptoms as though it’s like like this disease you can catch like it’s like watch out, you know, like so. But there’s a lot that goes into it when you pour your heart and soul into something.
00;13;08;04 – 00;13;29;20
A lot of these, it’s just really it’s really common and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you find like, oh, I actually line up with a number of these, like I take some of these boxes that is okay. Like it’s, there’s no shame there. It’s just like it’s self-evaluation, like, oh, okay. Just the same with like burnout or something like, oh, I’m taking some of these boxes.
00;13;29;27 – 00;13;57;11
So now is a good time for me to, like, self-reflect and see what I can do to kind of, you know, make some healthier choices for myself, for the sanctuary. So there’s like, you know, getting rid of the stigma of founder syndrome. Like, it’s not it’s not bad that you are human and you’re, you know, and you’ve oh, suddenly, like, are having a hard time letting anyone else do the thing because you know that if, you know, you ultimately are the one that can just do it.
00;13;57;11 – 00;14;22;11
And so like, why would you hire I I’ll just do it in a little things like that. Super normal, super, you know, like no shame in it too. But just like recognizing it and you’re like, Oh, I’m doing some of these things, so maybe I need to like take a minute and think, okay, how can I start processing some of this in a way that is healthier for the individual and also it will be for the sanctuary as a whole too.
00;14;22;12 – 00;14;24;11
00;14;24;11 – 00;14;41;18
Amber did such a good job with that resource because I feel like it’s such a a touchy subject and has a lot of stigma with it where it’s either like people being like a, that person has founder syndrome or like someone being so adamant that like that would never, ever happen to them because that only happens to like a certain type of person.
00;14;42;09 – 00;15;07;21
So that resource is really great and I am pretty sure that I’m not making this up, but I might be. I think this is from Amber is resource, but it could be from something else. But I feel like also like recognizing, acknowledging, celebrating that like, like the, the characteristics, the traits, the drive, the skills that one might need to start something like that’s incredible.
00;15;07;21 – 00;15;29;15
And not everybody has that. But then that, that might mean that someone else with different skills can do certain things, whether it’s continue to move it forward or just take on certain responsibilities like that doesn’t have to be seen as some sort of like deficit on someone’s part that they don’t have these skills. It’s like, but you have the skills to make it happen.
00;15;29;22 – 00;15;43;24
And sort of celebrating that and figuring out like what your little like niche can be or what your role can be and realizing that like no person is going to be able to do like all the things and do all the things well. So just like sort of like shifting that.
00;15;44;23 – 00;15;58;19
Yeah. And it really mentioned oh sorry. I just want to say quickly, it really reminds me of a quote. If you want to go somewhere fast, do it alone. If you want to go somewhere far, do it together. So that’s just what I thought of with you both. Go ahead, McKenzie.
00;15;59;05 – 00;16;24;00
I was just going to make a confession that I have definitely experienced founder syndrome with open sanctuary. Like, I definitely have had like moments where I’m like, I am super spiraling and nobody’s going to help and it’s going to be awful. And I have to do this because, you know, when you start out and you’re just like, okay, well, it’s just on me.
00;16;24;00 – 00;16;49;11
And if it’s and if it’s not on me, it just ends you. That’s a really hard mindset to really let go of and to just be like, no, like this is a new thing. It’s not an extension of myself and my ego and my ability and like it takes processing to like really recognize it and recognize that it’s like you are like, you know, I realize that I’m like, okay, I am micromanaging.
00;16;49;19 – 00;17;14;08
I have a wonderful team. They all know so much. They are so passionate and I need to trust that they know what’s going on and that it’s hard sometimes, even when you’re working with the most wonderful group of people that I’ve ever met just to get to that point. So like, there’s no shame in it, but you do have to do something about it or else it’ll, it’ll snowball.
00;17;15;04 – 00;17;37;13
I do. I do think it’s a good point to raise to that, especially as organizations get bigger, which I realize doesn’t necessarily apply to us. But when you have an organization that gets bigger and has all these different departments, this idea of like the things that come with founder syndrome, I think sometimes people are like, well, I didn’t found the organization and therefore I am immune to, you know, this thing.
00;17;37;13 – 00;18;04;05
But it’s like, you know, you can have a situation where somebody comes on and they start a whole new department or they’re leading like the animal care, which is totally separate from maybe the founder and like the EDI and stuff. And so it’s just really easy to get when you’re really dedicated, when you’ve done a lot of work to get attached to this role and to have that melding of like I am this.
00;18;04;14 – 00;18;42;00
And that’s a conversation that came up when we were having one of our calls and micro sanctuary and not to like bring it back to that, but like this idea that instead of having this thing that is like separate from your life where it’s like your job and then your job seeps into every other aspect of your life, is having your life and like having part of your life being that you care for animals which just like so which is it a little bit and not that micro sanctuary isn’t overwhelming and that you can’t have capacity issues and that you don’t need to plan for all these things, but it can in some circumstances make
00;18;42;00 – 00;19;03;07
a little bit more room for like a multidimensional life or without feeling like you’re giving up aspects of your life in order to, you know, like when I started working at a sanctuary, I, you know, gave up my apartment. I dragged my boyfriend leg into the country because that’s where the sanctuary was. Then we like moved across the country.
00;19;03;07 – 00;19;27;19
And and it was a lot of like no one to save for us because it was a decision, but it had a lot of like massive, like ripples as opposed to, you know, cantaloupe. Moving in with us does have a ripple because, of course, but it’s not the same, you know, it’s not like this abrupt change in our life to do this thing.
Common Founder Challenges
You aren’t alone. Many founders have been in the position of having built something from nothing, using all the skills and passion at their disposal, and many of those same founders also experience emotional challenges and difficulty drawing healthy boundaries for themselves when it comes to their labor of love. The following are some examples of struggles founders commonly experience:
- “They need me. I can’t leave.”
- “It’s selfish to leave. If I really cared, I would forgo a vacation.”
- “What if something happens while I am gone?
But here is why it’s critical for founders to take much needed vacations:
- Burnout is real. You can think, strategize and provide better care if you also take time to care for yourself.
- This gives the staff and board (or for Microsanctuaries are small scale communities of human and nonhuman (generally “unconventional or farmed”) animal companions, who live together in a chosen shared lifestyle and in commitment to ending the oppression of all beings. Microsanctuaries adhere to the notion that no nonhuman member of the community should “serve a purpose.” Microsanctuaries can exist in any context: rural, suburban, or urban. A microsanctuary can consist of as small a community as one animal and one human caregiver. For more information on microsanctuary please refer to the Microsanctuary Resource Center., trusted helpers in the community) the chance to experience running of the sanctuary without your presence. Your board and staff need to be able to practice running the sanctuary in case there is a time where you are unable to. This also gives everyone the chance to see where organizational and protocols may need improvement.
- It sets a good example. Staff often feel the pressure to consistently sacrifice their own needs in order to care for the residents. However, they need breaks and lives outside of the sanctuary as well. They’ll be more able to keep working at the sanctuary if they can practice self care. Seeing the founder taking care of themself is good leadership, and conversely, staff are less likely to take care of themselves if they never see leadership doing so.
- Taking a break allows you to remember there is life outside of the sanctuary. Hobbies, trips, museums, and more all exist outside of the sanctuary bubble. Remembering this can help develop your sense of self outside of the sanctuary so when the time comes to delegate more duties to others, you will have this to fall back on. This can also help ease merged identities of the sanctuary and the founder.
Now that we have discussed common experiences many founders face, let’s take a look at one of the most important things a founder can do to help ensure the stability and longevity of the sanctuary they have worked so hard to build: Succession Planning.
Succession planning is a critical aspect of sanctuary stability and an important responsibility for founders. It is never too early to start developing a succession plan. In addition to the many other benefits of a well-crafted succession plan, it can also help founders think about when and how they might choose to step back from sanctuary responsibilities, and have thoughtful discussions with the board regarding the vision for the sanctuary. From there, together founders and board members can discuss the ideal attributes the next “generation” of sanctuary leadership will embody for the ultimate growth and sustainability of the sanctuary. Read our full resource on succession planning here!
Beware Of Founder’s Syndrome!
You may have heard of the dreaded “Founder’s Syndrome” or “Founderitis”. It may sound like an insidious disease that creeps around looking for founders to infect. However, at its simplest state, Founder’s Syndrome merely refers to the understandable difficulty many founders experience when it comes time for organizational change, including the possibility of founders stepping down from their regular roles and responsibilities which they have generally held for a long time.
Founder’s Syndrome is just a case of being human. Founder’s Syndrome is struggling to let go of control, harboring feelings that one knows best, fearing loss, feeling responsible for all aspects of care, and feeling the need to have the final word on any and every difficult situation that arises. In the beginning of a sanctuary’s organizational history, some of these traits are understandable. But as the sanctuary grows, so too will its need for other individuals, those with different strengths than those that it takes to start a sanctuary from the ground up. Some people shine at new and innovative ideas that will allow an established sanctuary to blossom and thrive, but they wouldn’t have been able to offer these innovations without the early efforts of the founder.
The following are general symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome. See if you identify with any or all of them- and if you’re not a founder, think back to other times in your life where you may have experienced these feelings, because they’re quite universal! Remember: just because you can see yourself in these signs, it doesn’t mean you are experiencing full blown Founder’s Syndrome, or that you should feel judged or guilty. You are human, and it takes a lot to start a and grow a sustainable sanctuary. It also takes a lot to let go and let others step up!. It’s okay to have difficult feelings.
Signs You May Be Struggling:
- Micromanaging, or frequently needing to assess what members of staff or volunteers are doing, even if you’ve already checked or they’ve already demonstrated their aptitude for their role.
- Frequently ignoring the ideas and opinions of others, or soliciting ideas from staff that never get implemented or discussed again.
- Expanding the sanctuary’s board with members who are likely to simply agree with whatever you want to do, rather than providing a different perspective and a commitment to the sanctuary as a standalone organization.
- Discouraging staff from taking initiative, sharing ideas, or providing feedback.
- Being solely in charge of dispensing sanctuary resources.
- Insisting on meeting with donors and stakeholders without other key staff present.
- Attempting to manage every project and program even if you lack the ideal skills to make them as successful as they can be.
- Making significant care, financial, and operational decisions without the input of board or qualified staff members.
- Having promotional or educational materials that focus on you as an individual rather than on the sanctuary itself.
- Preferring to be the first point of contact for the organization, even when another staff member would make more sense.
- Representing your opinion to stakeholders as the consensus opinion of the organization.
- Feeling you are the only one that can ever effectively manage the sanctuary.
- Having no intention of ever stepping down.
- Feeling threatened by new staff roles and ideas.
Remember, there is no shame in experiencing difficult feelings surrounding change. Change is hard, and it’s okay to have challenging feelings. For the sake of yourself, the sanctuary, and everyone connected to it, recognizing when you are struggling and facing those struggles with the support of the board or your peers can make a big difference.
Tips For Founders:
Below are some ways to help you navigate the challenges that come from being a founder:
- Start succession planning early. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to start!
- Self-evaluate and address your fears. Take time to evaluate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Note any “red flags” that you may be struggling with, and seek support. Create a plan that proactively deals with all the things you (or the board) are concerned may happen when you leave. Are you afraid that you have been the strongest link to the community, or the public image of the organization? Determine a way to proactively deal with these challenges as a team.
- Choose board members based on their commitment to the sanctuary, not you as an individual. Ideally, the board will help expand the board themselves, but this can be a challenge in the beginning. Carefully choose a board member or two who are truly dedicated to the mission of the sanctuary, and allow them to recruit other board members.
- Be open to change. Change is hard, but inevitable. Allowing room for others to pick up the torch and run with it is an important part of any organization’s growth.
- Practice Self Care. Try to be gentle with yourself. Take breaks, seek out a hobby and a support network outside of the sanctuary. Consider therapy to help you through periods of adjustments. Asking for help takes a lot of strength!
- Start small, but delegate. Give enthusiastic staff members the opportunity to handle sanctuary responsibilities, and support their efforts where you can without micromanaging.
- Know when to let go. It’s okay to feel sad or anxious and to grieve your role at the sanctuary you built. Let yourself feel these things. Just don’t let them stop you from taking important transitional steps.
- Clarify roles and responsibilities of board and staff, especially in transition periods when creating or expanding staff positions.
- Establish checks and balances so that one person doesn’t hold veto power over the entire board or staff. No single person should have veto authority or lead on the appearance of having it.
- Listen carefully to feedback, both about the organization and your leadership. Solicit genuine feedback from your staff or volunteers, and try to make positive changes where warranted. Sometimes it can be valuable to specifically ask for “three positive pieces of feedback, three pieces of constructive feedback” from individuals, so they know they can be fully honest rather than trying to avoid causing hurt feelings and not providing an honest appraisal.
- Find peer support, either from those working at other animal-focused organizations, at other Non-governmental organizations whose primary purpose is something other than selling goods or services., or just friends who have an idea of what you’re going through. Talking to folks who can relate to your struggles is highly valuable both for one’s mental health and to help find actionable solutions to difficult problems.
- Let your baby grow up! You took the tough step of starting something amazing and nurturing it to this point, now give it the opportunity to flourish with the help of others who see the incredible organization it can become!
Examples Of Difficult Scenarios Founders Face
Below are few examples of scenarios founders may face, and suggestions of how to consider navigating these challenges:
Devon started their sanctuary 21 years ago, but they are tired and ready to step down. Although they have worked with the board to develop a succession plan, they fear surprising and disappointing their board and supporters. It was an unspoken assumption that Devon would continue on as Executive Director, and only step down in case of a life emergency. It never occured to anyone to ask if Devon might want other things for their future. Because of this, they don’t know who might be interested in taking over their role as The individual formally in charge of final decision making at an organization, who sometimes works closely with the organization’s Board of Directors. Sometimes a Founder is an Executive Director, especially early in a nonprofit’s growth stages..
In order to cope with this situation, Devon and their organization’s board could take the following steps:
- Ensure honest and open communication channels: Devon was afraid to disappoint their board and supporters by even talking about stepping down, which has created the situation above. While their concerns are valid and understandable, facing those fears now and talking about them will help ensure the sanctuary is in a good space when Devon can no longer serve as Executive Director.
- Facilitate more communication about the Executive Director role: It would be preferable to start early, working with the board to create job descriptions for the Executive Director role and the type of skills and personality you think would be a good fit for the next Executive Director (as this next ED will require a substantially different skillset than a founder may need to possess). Devon should start communicating with the board as soon as possible to get this process going.
- If applicable, the sanctuary could consider investing in a staff member that has the potential and willingness to take on the Executive Director role someday. Sanctuaries have sought this solution by hiring on a staff member with the transparent communication with the board and staff that this individual may step into the Executive Director role in the future. This also gives the current Executive Director and board time to get to know this individual and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, rather than making them jump right into an executive role.
- Get peer and professional support. This is a challenging process for anyone. Devon should reach out to peers and counselors to help them work through difficult emotions and offer helpful feedback. Having this support can help Devon make more skillful decisions about the organization and their future, rather than reactive decisions based on fatigue or burnout.
This is a tough space to be in for everyone. Jerome could take some of these steps to prevent this from becoming a contentious issue that may negatively affect the sanctuary:
- It would be helpful for Jerome to self-reflect and identify any fears of loss he might be experiencing. Discussing those openly with a trusted friend, mental health professional, or the board, could help him get the support he needs and prevent regrettable confrontations.
- Developing a succession plan earlier on would have been preferable, with plans for others to bring in their skills and experiences while Jerome slowly took on different roles to help the sanctuary succeed. However, much like planting a tree, the second best time for succession planning is today. In Jerome’s case, this should include a discussion of the land the sanctuary operates upon and how that will work out when Jerome eventually transitions to another role.
- Jerome should work closely with the board to write out job descriptions for future staff and the role of Executive Director to help identify staff needs and feel like he’s a trusted part of the sanctuary’s future development.