Be sure to have a leadership succession plan in place at your nonprofitKathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, offers her response to the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.
I work in a small nonprofit providing animal protection services. Our executive director recently took her annual summer vacation at the beach and tragically drowned in a boating accident. She was only 40 years old, a mother of two, and a beloved fundraiser and leader.
All of my co-workers are walking around like zombies. We are grieving and scared. There is no one here with the “chops” of our former boss to take over this nonprofit. The board had no succession plan and we are working in a state of limbo. There are rumors of shutting down, but what will happen to the abandoned and rescued animals we nurse back to health and place in new “forever” homes?
No one seems to have any path toward stability and there are rumors of mass staff exits. We do important work and I don’t want to just give up, as much as I miss and honor our former executive director. How do we recover?
Kathryn says …
As a former executive director of a grief and loss center, I know that your initial shock and disbelief is normal, whether it regarding the death of a close colleague or a family member. According to the American Psychiatric Association, grief is a natural process that requires time, but there are some things you can do to help yourself:
- Share your feelings. Your other co-workers may be experiencing the same emotions you are. Mutual support can help everyone get through the grieving process.
- If available, take advantage of employee assistance programs. Experienced counselors can offer support and structure to help individuals and groups come to terms with a loss and make appropriate plans for memorials and gestures of condolences to family members.
- Plan ahead. Work with your human resources specialists regarding protocols for responding to a worker's death. Issues to consider include sharing information, handling personal effects, allowing time off for funerals and reassigning space or equipment.
The stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance
While there are many schools of thought on the grieving process, most generally agree that moving through all “five stages of grief,” originally described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross author of “On Death and Dying,” can take two years or longer, and may not occur in that particular order.
As far as ensuring the survival of your nonprofit, you don’t have two years or even two months to move through to reconstruction and acceptance. Not only are you dealing with the heartbreaking loss of a trusted and admired colleague and friend; you are also faced with what might be the closing of your organization and the animals for which you care so deeply.
I suggest that you form a small group of about three or four staff and request a special board meeting. Go into the meeting with a focus on solutions rather than a fearful panic. Before the meeting, the group should identify the roles played or tasks in progress specifically handled by the late executive director. Suggest the temporary assignment of these tasks and responsibilities to other staff, volunteers or board members. Prepare ahead as much as you can, and then carefully review your list, highlight any unknowns and then fill in gaps from the board’s perspective. Here’s a guide to categorizing your list of how the executive director's sudden loss is impacting key areas of your organization’s operations.
- Facilities and operations
- Fundraising and revenue
- Human resources
- Legal and taxes
- Outcomes and impact measurement/reporting
- Strategy and planning
Temporary leadership is essential
You mentioned there is no succession plan in place. This means someone with the most leadership skills, expertise and training needs to be appointed as interim executive director. This act alone will help stabilize your nonprofit boat. The board needs to approve, and immediately put in place a plan, to find a permanent executive director. Generally, there are nonprofit management assistance programs, state-by-state (if this is in the U.S., and the U.K. has the equivalent) that can help you place an interim executive director if there is no current staff member appropriate for the role. These services can also help you search for, interview and find a new, permanent executive director.
The board of directors must create a succession plan for your nonprofit
All boards need to do this, as a matter of good governance. Here are articles that might help: