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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.