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    Succession Planning: A Necessary Component Of Responsible Animal Sanctuary Management

    Wooden sign with text: "Exit This way"

    Regardless of whether you’re just getting started on your animal sanctuary journey or have been caring for your residents for many years, it’s incredibly important that your sanctuary develops and maintains a succession plan for all of its critical team members, including the sanctuary’s founders if they are a part of day to day operations. Even after many years of hard work, fundraising, effective management, and advocacy, a sanctuary’s existence can be jeopardized when mission critical personnel are no longer able or available to do the work.

    According to a 2011 nonprofit study by CompassPoint and Meyer Foundation, only 17% of surveyed nonprofits had crafted a document outlining any kind of succession planning, and according to a University Of Washington survey, 54% of nonprofit leadership teams could not identify potential successors if their chief executives unexpectedly departed. Because sanctuaries are directly responsible for a large number of lives, your organization should take action now to ensure that you’re ready to handle any disruption or change in leadership seamlessly and transparently.

    Sanctuary succession planning decisions should be integrated into two important organizational policy documents in addition to being a well-maintained internal policy of its own:

    • It should be a part of your sanctuary’s business plan to help cement your organization’s path to sustainability and to demonstrate organizational maturity to potential donors. The Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries looks for well-crafted succession plans for all critical team roles as part of their accreditation process.
    • It should be integrated into your sanctuary’s contingency policymaking, in the unfortunate event that a critical team member or active founder is suddenly unable to perform their duties.

    Although this may seem like a distant thought that could be shuffled to the bottom of your organization’s list of pressing everyday concerns, don’t put it off! Setting aside a small amount of time regularly to discuss succession planning will ultimately be time very well spent when the need to execute your plan arises. Succession planning is also provides an excellent opportunity for your team and board to reflect upon the mission of your organization and truly think about how it should evolve and grow in the future.

    Don’t be afraid to ask!

    You may be concerned that requesting a succession plan strategy session at a team or board meeting might signal that you as an executive director or founder are planning to leave, or you as a board want for someone to leave, but it’s important to get started on succession planning regardless of any initial discomfort! If anyone feels hesitant, highlight the ways that a succession plan can protect an organization long past the tenure of any one individual, and how it can protect your organization and residents in the inevitable future. Just ensure that the process is conducted with transparency and clarity, so nobody ever feels like an early departure is being planned for them!

    Elements Of Effective Succession Planning

    A Statement Of Purpose

    There should be a basic explanation of what the succession plan is, when it should be executed, and how often it should be reviewed. This is a simple measure to keep the whole organization on the same page of the plan’s purpose and how to maintain its relevance.

    Succession Planning For Founders

    Because sanctuary founders tend to have years of knowledge, relationships, and legal responsibility for many parts of the sanctuary, it’s most important to provide a succession plan for this crucial role, especially if a founder is also the executive director. When a founder leaves, there can be a very stressful and fraught transition period without thorough planning. The founder or co-founders should consider:

    • Do they have an idea or established timeline for when they’d like to step away from the organization?
    • What should the structure of the organization look like without their presence?
    • Ff they are acting as the Executive Director, what are necessary attributes, skills, or commitments that the board should look for in their replacement?
    • How will the organization, land, property, and animals be treated in terms of legal considerations? Depending on how the sanctuary was founded, will there need to be a trust or will established for the continuation of its mission?
    • Is there a plan set in place to reassure donors or raise extra funds in a possibly financially unstable transition period (such as implementing a fundraising legacy campaign in honor of the departing founder), in order to keep the organization financially comfortable?
    Avoid Founder’s Syndrome!

    Despite their very best intentions, every organization that has a long running leadership or core founding team involved in the day to day management of their mission inevitably risks suffering from Founder’s Syndrome. This happens when leadership is unwilling to transition when it’s time to allow the organization to grow beyond their original planning and vision, causing stagnation, hard feelings, short-sighted policymaking, and potentially even risking the organization’s continued existence. Founders should think critically about when they’d like to step back for the good of their organization and how they envision their role once their tenure is complete. Although it may seem like the organization must have their consistent input, founders need to trust that they’ve chosen an excellent group of people to continue their mission and provide a model of what mature leadership looks like by allowing others to take the helm of what they’ve built.

    Succession Planning For Executive Directors

    Because they are ultimately responsible for the successful management, maintenance, and growth of the sanctuary, there must be a great deal of careful succession planning considered for executive directors (or the equivalent acting team member at your sanctuary).

    • There should be a thorough job description of what the executive director does, and what ideal qualities a replacement should have.
    • If the executive director cannot serve or must take a leave of absence, how are their roles and duties going to be distributed amongst the rest of the organization, and who will fulfill those duties specifically? Make sure that all identified team members are aware of this plan!
    • There should be a clear description of the role your sanctuary’s board will play in overseeing the transition, including the hiring and oversight of an interim executive director, determining salary, assigning responsibilities, and whether there will be a transition committee.
    • If you have someone in mind to succeed the executive director, do you have cross-training and documentation in place to help them transition comfortably and effectively? This includes providing confidential access to mission critical documents like permits, business licenses, applications, grant letters, your donor and funder information, keys for all the buildings and vehicles, bank account and insurance information, passwords, and other elements that have accumulated as your sanctuary has grown.
    • Will the executive director role be split into multiple people’s responsibilities when the current one leaves? Many times, as a sanctuary rapidly grows, the first executive director ends up taking on a great deal of responsibilities that may be better served by multiple team roles in the future.
    • What will the salary requirements be for a qualified replacement executive director? Some founders spend their whole time at their organization taking little to no salary despite immense time commitments and responsibilities; it’s very likely that in order to find a qualified replacement, the organization will have to build in the budget to pay the next executive director.
    • Who should be contacted (and how) in the event of a succession? Do you need to contact major donors? Other sanctuaries who could help support you? Volunteer leaders?
    Donor Diligence

    Because major donors typically shoulder a great deal of ongoing costs at sanctuaries, it’s incredibly important that you practice safe donor relationship management. In terms of succession planning, every major donor should have at least two close relationships with people in your organization, especially beyond the founder or founders. This way, if somebody leaves the organization (especially unexpectedly), you can fall back upon a different relationship to manage a donor’s needs and concerns. Losing a donor in addition to a critical team member in a short period of time is a potential disaster best avoided!

    Succession Planning For Other Positions

    Depending on how your organization is structured, you may also want to craft similar succession plans for other agreed upon key positions, such as the Assistant Director, Finance Director, Animal Care Director, Development Director, or anyone else who is instrumental in how your sanctuary is run and sustained. Succession planning for these positions should all have well-defined and frequently updated job descriptions so that anybody who takes over can integrate as seamlessly as possible into the organization’s structure and needs.

    Succession Planning For Board Members

    When a board member wishes to leave, it’s important to have a strategy in place for finding additional members. Evaluate the current skills and experience that the board provides for your organization, what knowledge and experience gaps would be ideal to fill for the future of your organization, and craft a strategy to help identify and invite potential new members. Sometimes, board members feel obliged to stay on long after they’d wish to remain. Creating a succession plan strategy gives peace of mind that board members can continue to support the organization until they feel like they are no longer contributing as much as they’d like, and give them the opportunity to help cultivate new energy and perspectives when they wish to depart.

    Contingency Planning

    Whereas most succession planning strategy should be focused on planned departures, it’s also important to create plans for unexpected scenarios. For instance, Is there a clear, actionable plan in place in case a critical team member or founder is unexpectedly unable to serve or takes a leave of absence? Who will be the acting executive until the board can meet and create a concrete plan? Will there be a designated liaison to the press or community? 

    In the case of an emergency or organizational dissolution, what will happen to the animals? Is there a written agreement in place with another sanctuary? How will they be transported? Are there written instructions and assurances that they will not be exploited and given proper care? Will your organization provide monetary assistance to their new home? The time to consider all of these variables is long before any potential disaster strikes.

    For a more detailed look at contingency planning, check out our article here.

    Tell The World!

    Once you’ve successfully crafted your succession plan strategy, consider highlighting your progress with your donors and community. While you shouldn’t necessarily share sensitive internal documentation about the specifics of your plan, you can let the public know that you have responsible plans ready to go. This demonstrates that your organization is transparent, forward-thinking, and more likely to have laid the appropriate groundwork to manage financial gifts and grants effectively and productively.


    Succession Planning | Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries

    Succession Plan Example | Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue

    Five Succession Planning Steps To Overcome Founder’s Syndrome | Northwestern University

    Succession Planning For Nonprofits | National Council Of Nonprofits

    Five Steps to Stronger Succession Plans in Nonprofits | Association Of Fundraising Professionals

    Succession Planning For Nonprofits Of All Sizes | Blue Avocado

    Leadership Succession Planning | The Bridgespan Group

    Five Important Tips For Succession Planning | Top Nonprofits

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