No One Should Be Indispensable

In my last two posts, I shared stories about a founder who stayed around too long and another founder who made a positive and gracious exit. In this post, I share a story about the founder of an all-volunteer organization who wanted to move on but could not because they were not set up for leadership transition.

There are two lessons from this story. The first is to make sure you don’t rely too much on one individual – either as ED or as Board Chair. As a board member, you have responsibility for the well-being of the organization. If one person is so important that the organization might fail if something happens to them, then you are not meeting your responsibility to ensure the health of the organization.

The second lesson is around succession planning. Every organization needs a plan. When I work with boards, I suggest that they find ways to stagger terms so that individuals with more experience can mentor new ones moving into the role. For example, the Board Chair would have a two-year term. During her first year, the previous Board Chair remains around and on the executive committee as Immediate-Past Chair. This person can advise the first-year Board Chair. During the Board Chair’s second year, the past Chair moves out, but a Chair-Elect is selected. This new person shadows the Board Chair in order to learn the role, making it much easier to move into the Chair’s position the following year. This does mean a four-year commitment to leadership. Here is the sequence:

  • Year 1: You are Chair-Elect and shadow the current Board Chair
  • Year 2: You are Board Chair and the previous Chair remains as Immediate-Past Chair to mentor you
  • Year 3: You are Board Chair and a new Chair-Elect shadows you
  • Year 4: You are Immediate-Past Chair and mentor the new Board Chair

This process works well for committee chairs and other roles as well. It allows for more consistency for the Executive Director. Note you might need to change your by-laws.

I also know of an organization that has a triumvirate of Chair-Elect, Board Chair, and Immediate-Past Chair working together with a one-year term as Chair. This makes the commitment only three years which may be more realistic in some situations.  

All-Volunteer Organization Founded by Passionate People

The organization was a giving circle that was totally volunteer led. No paid staff. Someone told me about giving circles and I thought this was a really neat concept. I was interested in the idea of a group of women with a common goal. Everyone pays in the same amount and everyone votes on where the money goes. I got three other women to start a board. I was the president. One person was an attorney. One was an accountant. The fourth was in academics. We had a good starting team and the four of us worked hard to put together an organization, create by-laws, and the like.

Next, we had to find a mission. We ended up choosing childhood hunger, nutrition, and food security focusing on a nearby neighborhood. It was a mission everyone could agree on. Especially women.

We started recruiting members. People responded to the mission and to the idea of joining together to do what none of us could do alone. The fact that it was an equal amount was important. It was $500 or nothing. You were a member or you weren’t.  By the end of the year, we had 50 women. Everyone put in $500 so we had $25,000 to grant. Our membership ranged from people who spend that much on a pair of shoes to people who had to think carefully or had to go home and ask their husbands before they could commit $500.

We got the word out that we were going to have money to grant. We went through an application process. We did site visits. It was a good start. The second year, we did the same. Our membership grew. After we finished our fourth year, we had seven people on the board. We had 90 members and we granted $45,000. We’d become known in the community. We had articles written about us.

Founder Becomes Indispensable

Every year we re-did everything. It was difficult to work that way. We put everything up and then took it down again. We had to divvy up the tasks to whoever would do them. Nobody was paid so they did them when they could find the time. The board and a slightly larger circle of members did the work — handled applications, read grants, and made site visits. The rest of the membership just sent a check. I did a huge amount of the work. As president and founder, people saw me as indispensable — which at that point I was. If something happened to me, things would have fallen apart — if only because nobody else knew all the passwords to our web site or had copies of all the documents we used. I was ready to move on. I was burning out. But I couldn’t because we had not set things up for changing leadership.

Before then, we did not give much thought to keeping it going. It was all been about getting through this year. We did not have a handbook. We did not have a replicable process. Finally, at a board meeting, we said we have to get organized. We had started with a group of super passionate people. But new people are not as invested emotionally, and they don’t want to take on a whole lot of work. We had to figure out how to keep going.

I was afraid to even bring up the idea of hiring staff. We had promoted that every dollar went directly to provide services. As soon as you hire staff, it takes a big chunk of money out of the pool.

All the board members agreed we needed a succession plan. A lot of them were getting tired too. They were carrying a lot of weight. We needed to bring in others to do more work and to sign up for leadership. And while nobody was saying directly to me that I should retire or that I had to leave then, everyone knew that we had to develop leadership to move into my position and into the other positions. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that no one was aware how much I was doing.

So, the board worked on defining what we do and how we do it. This is how the grants get read every year. This is how site visits are done. We created a manual and a process for moving new people into the roles.

Lessons Learned: Long-term Vision and Succession Planning

The advice I would give is you need a long-term vision of how you are going to proceed. You need a handbook that defines what you do and how you do it. You need to have a structure to move new people into roles. Otherwise everyone gets too tired. And you can’t have one person – the founder – be the only person who knows everything.


  1. Craig Stewart

    Janet – Love your posts and wisdom based on your year’s of commitment and service. Keep em coming!

    1. Janet Levinger

      Glad they are helpful. Please forward to others — and let me know if you have a story and lessons learned to share.

  2. Deidre McCormack

    Great advice on how to handle board chair succession. At past organizations, we’ve done one year board term, with a year as past chair and 6 months to a year as the Chair Elect. It’s a great way to train the incoming chair, and provide support to current chair and leads to much smoother transitions, as well as is easier for the Executive Director.

    1. Janet Levinger

      I like the idea of a 6 month Chair Elect!

  3. Janet! This hits the core of this:

    You should speak at a TED Talk! It all comes down is TRUST!

    Thank you!

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