When Nonprofit Founders Get Off The Bus: What Happens Next?
In the day, it was a must-read for nonprofit organizations. Author Jim Collins had just released Good to Great and The Social Sectors, a monograph to accompany his earlier best-seller Good to Great. Here was the social sector application of his findings from research on company cultures that go the distance by design. In earnest. On purpose. Like nonprofit peers across the land, our mission's leadership team grabbed copies of the book, gobbled it up, and began responding to the key concepts.
One Good to Great concept still rises to the top of my takeaway list. It was Jim's metaphor comparing a "good to great" company to a bus, the exceptional leader as the bus driver, and his thought-provoking challenge to those leaders---including nonprofit leaders---to make sure the right people were sitting in the right seats on that bus.
Yes, Jim was on to something. And I believe it explains what is so essential, so evident in the launching of an extraordinary social sector venture.
Just think about it.
During the founding years of aspiring "good to great" nonprofits you will find a host of remarkably right people driving those buses and sitting in those seats. They are determined, duty-bound and dead serious. Savvy and street smart, they know how to stare down a dare. Sensitive, spiritual, selfless, sacrificial souls. Mostly saints. A few sinners too. All over-the-top gifted with intellectual and inspirational assets.
Charting new territory, they make up the road map as they go along. When the bus breaks down, or a detour is encountered, or they take the wrong exit, their individual and collective skill sets evolve lighting fast; their scope of knowledge expands exponentially. Later, down the road, many find themselves still wearing many hats doing many jobs. With little regret and mostly satisfied, the journey on that metaphorical bus has been their destination.
Now, think about this...
What if this same group of social sector founders actually decides to take a real road trip together in a real bus? Any nonprofit with a brain would take out a major group insurance policy for executive management replacement. God forbid that something horrible would happen.
But something serious is most certainly ahead. Eventually, even an aspiring "good to great" nonprofit will face the inevitable: transitioning from its founding years to the next phase in its institutional life cycle. One by one the founding generation will get off the bus, taking their intellectual and inspirational assets with them.
Dreamers and vision-casters;
Inventors and geniuses of program services;
Instigators and innovators of best practices;
Concept thinkers and architects of ideas;
Brand loyalists and happy warriors;
Apologists and advocates for the cause;
Holy agitators and the spiritually attuned;
Seasoned diplomats and liaisons with the public;
Invigorators of missional culture;
Keepers and interpreters of institutional history;
Ethical straight-shooters and financial watchdogs.
The list goes on and on. And one by one they leave behind empty seats on the bus. What happens next?
Experts in the life cycles of nonprofits signal the delicate nature of this transition phase. It's a liminal moment to be navigated with discernment and decisiveness. Not addressed properly, it can become problematic and perilous. Real quick. I'll never forget the moment when an advisor on this subject shed light on the real risk at hand. He had run across startling statistics: without a succession plan in place, the odds were stacked against a nonprofit actually making the transition successfully and surviving beyond the founding generation. By default, the majority of nonprofits will not make it. Picture many stranded, empty buses by the side of the road.
Or, picture the other scenario. Your social sector organization sees this transition ahead. It begins an intentional and crucial conversation about the subject. Succession planning by design. In earnest. On purpose.
As your founding executive management plans to retire, you audit and inventory the intellectual and inspirational assets that will be leaving with them;
You are proactive and determine what you will need to do to fill those empty seats, sustain momentum, and equip the next busload of leaders to steer the course of the mission further down the road;
Your nonprofit Board is engaged thoroughly at this stage, helping founding executive management think through the plan and guide the discussion and decision-making;
You start calculating future costs associated with the replacement of the exiting intellectual and inspirational assets;
You begin to build the case for support with your donors, asking them to think and give strategically toward the long-term sustainability of your mission, which includes filling those empty seats on the bus;
You consider how professional consulting services might provide an objective, third-party perspective to help your nonprofit successfully navigate through the challenges and opportunities associated with this phase.
The nonprofit founders will be disembarking. That's for certain. Make a decision now that your nonprofit will have a succession plan in place, ready to fill those soon-to-be-emptied seats. On that metaphorical bus. To ensure your nonprofit continues its very real journey from good to great.