I recently had a lively discussion with some of my institution's top alumni volunteer leaders. The topic was volunteer leadership succession – for boards, committees, reunion classes, special interest groups, chapters, and other volunteer-led groups. I believe that a volunteer leader's most important job is to find his or her own replacement. A leader has not completely fulfilled that role until a successor is ready to take over.
Together, we explored ways to identify and recruit the people who would succeed them in leadership positions. I've distilled here some of the tactics we discussed.
Volunteer Leadership Succession:
- Search for your successor right away
It takes longer than you might think to find a suitable replacement. Begin planning and idenitfying as soon as you take over the group's leadership.
- Don’t overstay your own welcome
If you love the job, you may want to stay in your leadership role as long as possible. Doing so, however, may create the impression that a leader has to serve for years, which can scare away likely successors. See also number 14 below.
- Don’t try to do every job yourself
Sometimes it's easier to do things yourself than to recruit helpers to whom you can delegate. But you might send the message to your potential replacements that a leader has to do all the work alone.
- Consider a structured "order of succession"
For medium and large volunteer groups, structuring succession (e.g., with a "president-elect" or a vice president who always succeeds the president) can stabilize succession further into the future.
- Seek guidance from past volunteers and current staff
Don't do the searching by yourself. You have valuable, experienced resources who can provide eyes and ears, as well as names of likely future leaders. Use these resources.
- Add – don't merely "replace"
If you have someone ready and able to step up and contribute, you don't have to wait until the leadership role is vacant. Add them to the leadership ranks, creating a role if necessary.
- Consider co-leader roles
Related to the the "add, don't just replace" idea is the option of having co-leaders. You don't need just a single person at the helm, especially if you have two people with complementary characteristics (e.g., a charismatic public speaker paired with a behind the scenes organizer).
- Document your plans and achievements
A listing of what the group has accomplished, and a road map showing a vision for the near future conveys a sense of structure. This makes new leaders more confident in their own prospects for success.
- Have a back up candidate when possible
Smaller groups may not have many volunteers to choose from, but if possible, identify second and even third choices (but don't necessarily let them know they're backups!). Plans change, and people can be transferred away, end up with family responsibilities, or face other unexpected demands that will cut into their volunteer time.
- Thank and recognize volunteers
Reinforcing the value and importance of volunteers' efforts is a key to making them feel that volunteerism is a privilege, not an obligation. Thank all levels of volunteers (not just leaders) publicly and sincerely.
- Create clear and finite roles
Simple job descriptions can make volunteers feel like their roles are manageable. Ending dates, or task-based finish lines will reinforce this feeling. If volunteers feel that their jobs are too open-ended, they will worry about whether they can ever step down – and won't necessarily know when they have succeeded.
- Attend as many alumni events as possible
Volunteer leaders are usually front and center at their own group's events. But not always. Working a room to meet new people is a valuable way to identify people with an interest in volunteering.
- Remember the power of peer-to-peer relationships
People are more likely to donate financially when asked by a friend or other person they know personally. The same is true of volunteering. If comfortable doing so, a leader who asks a friend or acquaintance for volunteer help is more likely to get a "yes" than when asking a relative stranger. Volunteers can reach out to friends and classmates when seeking successors.
- Be willing to stay during a transition
Volunteers are often so relieved (and sometimes, burnt out) that when they step down they can disappear completely for a while. A volunteer leader should offer to be accessible to a successor, so that the new leader has a source of information, history, advice and – perhaps most importantly – encouragement.
- Use the Golden Rule
Treat other volunteers the way you want to be treated. Did you get the support and aid you needed from other alumni and from staff? Were you treated with respect and professionalism? These are things to emulate in all your interactions with other volunteers.
What other advice and guidance do you provide to leaders regarding leadership succession?
Tell us by leaving a comment.
Thank you to members of the PCUAD group, to some of my university's volunteer leaders, and to members of the Alumni & Advancement Professionals' group on LinkedIn for providing some of these suggestions.