Guest blog by Dr Rajesh Tandon. Founder-President, PRIA, New Delhi.
“I wanted to reduce my daily drudgery of administration; I have done it for three decades. But I did not want to go away.”
“I am tired of doing fundraising with a begging bowl in front of donor representatives who are half my age; I would rather mentor my team.”
“I am ready to move on from this role now; but what will keep me engaged.”
These are statements I have heard from some of the founders of non-profit entities. There does come a time when founders want to break away. They want to drop their managerial responsibilities and move on to doing what may be more productive and meaningful use of their knowledge and wisdom.
From an organisational perspective, there does come a time when the energy and capacities of the founder fall short of the internal and external expectations of various stakeholders. The proclivities and priorities of the founders may not align with significant changes in the external context. For some founders of non-profit entities, responding to significant changes in funding streams and detailed and frequent reporting requirements, for example, are incongruent with their preferred leadership style.
Hence, there does come a time when founders move on from the active leadership of non-profit entities they founded.
The key to effective transition is ‘readiness’. There are five keys to this readiness which can lay the foundation for effective transition of founders from active leadership of the entity they founded.
First and foremost, readiness of the founder is critical. Founder has to acknowledge the personal and professional need to transit. Founders have to accept the changing realities and appreciate that their transition will make the non-profit entity even more robust and sustainable. This is not an easy process for most founders. There have been occasions where a founder may superficially agree to transit, but in reality, is not ready to do so. So, when transition does happen, it remains fragile, and sometimes the founder returns to the entity’s leadership once again. Such a flip-flop can be very injurious to the future of the entity.
Second, readiness of the Governing Board of the non-profit is key to effective transition of the founder. As most Board members of non-profit entities are ‘assembled’ by the founders, most Boards tend to view their role as ‘advisory’ to the founder. However, the Board, especially its key office-bearers, like the Chairperson, find it difficult then to take responsibility for ensuring smooth transition of the founder. Finding a suitable and effective successor to the founder may be viewed as such a ‘heavy burden’ that the Board vacillates endlessly. I have been in similar Board situations a few times, and have found myself feeling uncomfortable during and after the process of succession to the founder. So, Board readiness (and certainly Chairperson’s readiness) is an important key to effective founder transition in non-profits.
Third, key to effective founder transition is organisational readiness. Founder’s personalities, understandably, define the nature of organisational culture; many senior colleagues have been recruited personally by the founder; the founder has worked with many of them for years. There does develop a relationship of trust, comfort, shared vision and loyalty between the founder and many who work in the entity. These persons may feel a sense of personal loss with founder’s transition. If not dealt with adequately, their fears and anxieties may significantly obstruct the effectiveness of the transition – departure of founder and arrival of a successor.
Another key is the readiness of the key stakeholders. If the external eco-system of the non-profit entity is not ready to support the succession process, the transition may not be effective. In several non-profit entities I have seen that donors tend to have comfort with the founders, and hesitate a great deal to relate with the successor. Grant-making and philanthropy are highly personalised activities; founders have earned the trust of donors. Similar issues may arise with key government officials who may fear loss of trust or comfort with the successor. In many non-profit entities I have noticed that partners tend to seek out the founder, even if successor is fully competent to handle their issues.
Finally, the readiness of the successor is a key variable in effective transition of the founders. Finding a successor is impossible, as no one – just no one – can fit into the shoes of a founder. The successor should have required competencies to be an effective CEO of the entity. In a non-profit entity, the vision of the successor must be aligned to the entity. Therefore, should successors be ‘groomed’ from inside the entity? Do effective subordinates make effective CEOs (leaders)? Should the successors to founders in non-profits be brought from government and/or corporate sectors, given their vast managerial and marketing expertise? Or would this cause severe disruption in the entity? Doesn’t the new science of management tend to favour ‘disruptive interventions’ for innovations?
At the end of this debate, what really matters is effective transition of founder from the non-profit entity. We may learn from others’ experiences, but I am always surprised in such situations. Past is rarely a useful guide to effectiveness. Trust your judgment in the situation, and act intuitively.