Our founding director announced her intention to retire at the end of next year, and total panic ensued. Our board meetings were filled with comments like, “She is the face of this organization… it is nothing without her. When she leaves, she will take our donors and supporters with her. What do we do???”
There is perhaps no truer test of an organization’s relevance and value to the community than the departure of a founder or longtime leader. If the organization is a particular individual’s brainchild, chances are it has been publicized as such: at the mention of its name, people say, “oh, that’s Jane Doe’s organization, right?”
The term “Founder’s Syndrome” is often associated with overly puffed-up nonprofit directors who derive a disproportionate sense of self-importance from their work. However, there is another kind of Founder’s Syndrome that can be potentially as dangerous if left unaddressed: the fear that a nonprofit’s constituents experience when a beloved leader departs.
This topic came up in a session on artistic director searches at this weekend’s Illinois Council of Orchestras conference. The presenter, Susan Lape, talked about her experience as Executive Director of the Lake Forest Symphony when the organization’s longtime Artistic Director announced his intention to retire. She spoke of the anxieties that board members, donors and audiences expressed when they learned the news – and of her organization’s smart, empathic response to these fears. Her overall message was to be as transparent as possible with constituents about the process of engaging new leadership and honoring outgoing trailblazers.
Attending on behalf of a young client organization whose founder will hopefully be around for many years, I asked what nonprofits can do to avoid this type of mass-Founder’s Syndrome when the time comes. The most salient point that Ms. Lape made was this: if you want to avoid panic when the “face of your organization” leaves, make sure that your organization has more than one face.
Nonprofits have a lot to gain by making sure that multiple staff members and leaders get face time with funders, clients and/or audiences, and the broader public. This ensures that constituents always have someone else to turn to when a key founder, director or president leaves. Relationships are not lost when one leader bows out; rather, they are shared, transferred, and nurtured through the transition. Board presidents, executive, development and program directors should all make every effort to meet constituents, introduce one another to their contacts, and build rapport with key supporters.
Savvy, memorable leaders understand that, in order for their legacies to continue, succession planning is non-negotiable. For that reason, they make a concerted effort to share their relationships and bring new organizational leaders into the “circle of trust.”
My first boss in the arts, Maury Okun of Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, really did this well. I was a 22-year-old, entry-level staff member, but he was already personally introducing me to donors, taking me along on meetings with funders, and providing opportunities for me to speak publicly at events. He took the same approach with my colleagues, and I think the practice saved him time in the long run. Instead of always turning to him, our audience members and donors knew they could contact any one of us for assistance and information. We also learned very quickly about different aspects of the business, so that he could confidently delegate important tasks.
If you are a founder or director of a nonprofit, start thinking about your eventual transition as early as you can. Introduce your colleagues to your contacts. Allow them to speak publicly in your place. Be generous with your relationships, rather than defensive or guarding. By doing so, you will instill confidence in your supporters, and show the community that your organization has staying power because of its mission rather than individual personalities.
The Lake Forest Symphony chronicled its search for an artistic director in a documentary series, The Search, produced by Chicago’s WFMT 98.7 classical radio. This story of how a whole community came together to choose a new conductor is truly inspiring and worth a listen, even if you are a nonprofit manager outside of the arts.