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The Judean People’s Front and succession planning

[BY S. SALMI]

A long-time leader of a prominent local activist group recently moved on. You probably haven’t noticed because a wonderfully capable veteran activist has temporarily stepped in to facilitate a transition for this all-volunteer group. However, it’s still unclear whether someone can be found to lead the group on a longer-term basis. No ongoing leader, likely no more group. You would notice that.

Leadership-transition dramas are all-too-typical for local, volunteer-based activist groups. This is partly because we live in a small community that has a limited pool of people to draw from. Now add the balkanized nature of Thurston County’s green movement. As you can see from our links section, we’ve got dozens of local groups and independent media outlets. A goodly number of them are so small that their survival is dependent upon the continued health and happiness of only a few people.

Our situation is eerily similar to the activists in Monty Python’s movie, Life of Brian. Go here for a choice YouTube video clip, but it’s also fun to read the script:

“REG: . . . The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.

P.F.J.: Yeah…

JUDITH: Splitters.

P.F.J.: Splitters…

FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.

P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters…

LORETTA: And the People’s Front of Judea.

P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters…

REG: What?

LORETTA: The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.

REG: We’re the People’s Front of Judea!

LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.

REG: People’s Front! C-huh.

FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?

REG: He’s over there.

P.F.J.: Splitter!”

Let’s wave a magic wand and consolidate local green groups into more sustainable configurations. That would make leadership transitions somewhat easier but it wouldn’t completely solve the problem. Another challenge for most local groups is that they spend too little time tending their organizational health.

In a way that makes sense. Activists are motivated primarily by making policy or political changes. Dealing with organizational stuff such as succession planning can seem as boring as doing the laundry. It’s boring but lifesaving.

What does succession planning look like for a volunteer group?

Ms. Google can provide you with a multitude of approaches. The specific methodology matters less than taking succession planning seriously. That can feel daunting if you are already overbooked, so perhaps the best place to start is to think through an emergency transition plan that covers your key volunteers. In other words, what would your group need if one of its leaders left quickly and unexpectedly?

This starts with thinking about really basic stuff. Like putting in one place vital documents and information, according to a workbook by the Third Sector Company, Inc. For example, the new leadership team of one Olympia-area nonprofit took months — months — to get access to the bank account, post office box, donor lists, Facebook page and legal documents such as bylaws and IRS status. This was partly a product of disorganization but also may have reflected passive-aggressive behavior. One moral to this story: A system should be put in place where a disgruntled outgoing leader can’t hold the group hostage by withholding vital information.

Lack of the above information can kill an organization, but almost as important is documentation of who does what and why. That may sound obvious to those of us who have day jobs with the guv’mint, with its abundance of position descriptions, operations manuals and — dare I say — strategic plans. Indeed, we may be so tired of bureaucracy that we shy away from it in our volunteer roles. The problem with a casual approach is that when an important volunteer leaves, their prospective successor will have a harder time getting a handle on their responsibilities if they are not written down in a coherent way.

Creating a pipeline of talent is one of the best ways of avoiding a leadership vacuum. That could include identifying a board chair elect or, for larger groups, creating vice-chair positions for all board committees.

All of the above ideas are from the Third Sector Company, and were developed within the overall strategy shown in the graphic below. Three of the four goals fit all-volunteer groups just as much as larger nonprofits run by professionals. The fourth goal — “build human capital along with financial capital” — could be translated to building the expertise needed to accomplish the group’s mission. For example, if you rely heavily upon a website for your outreach you’ll need a volunteer with strong enough skills to get the job done well.

If all this sounds plausibly useful, the Third Sector’s workbook offers lots of additional tools and background information.


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