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March 29, 2017

Succession Planning

When you lose a great fundraiser you put at risk the relationships they hold and the organisational knowledge - and you have the headache and cost of recruiting and bedding in their successor. How can you plan for succession?

Succession Planning

Carla Miller

Succession planning is a systematic process whereby organisations identify, assess and develop their employees to ensure that they are ready to take on key roles within the organisation.

Succession planning is all about retention. Not just retention of your fundraisers but also retention of organisational knowledge and retention of relationships with supporters. When you lose a great fundraiser you put at risk the relationships they hold and the organisational knowledge - and you have the headache and cost of recruiting and bedding in their successor.

The current situation

As a recruiter I saw great people leaving organisations that they were passionate about because there was nowhere for their career to go within those charities. Even worse they were working in charities where no one had honest and open conversations about development and as a result their managers didn't even know they were looking for other jobs.

Traditionally, fundraisers don't stay long in jobs, with an anecdotal average of 18 months for junior fundraisers, and a bit longer for middle managers. Whilst some fundraisers like variety and new challenges, most people would probably stay in their current organisation if they were happy there and were developed and promoted. So why isn't it happening?

Yes, budgets are always tight at charities and few organisations can create a new position to keep a talented staff member - and it can set a dangerous precedent to do so anyway. And in a small charity it's hard to have a lot of levels that people can move up.

But the way charities approach retention of employees needs to change. Many charities struggle to think long-term generally because of the pressure to raise funds in the short-term and as a result there is no planning ahead. If you're not clear on your organisational priorities for the next 3 years then it is unlikely you will be adequately resourced for them.

HR is often under-utilised as a strategic department as well. HR teams should be partnering with leaders to create long term staff development plans that think beyond training and include retention as a strategic priority.

Tips on succession planning.

. Talk about it - have conversations with your team about where they want to be in a few years' time and what skills and experience they would like to gather along the way. Sometimes people can surprise you with their secret ambitions and some people also only really shine when they reach the level of seniority that suits them. You may have some great potential leaders in your team just waiting to be given permission to shine and some introverts who have been hiding their light under a bushel.

. Inspire learning - have a bookshelf of books on management, leadership, productivity etc that you encourage your team to make use of. Reading can inspire us and can give us new skills and knowledge. I particularly recommend "Playing Big" by Tara Mohr to encourage women to back themselves and fulfil their full potential in the workplace.

. Spot and develop potential - look at your team and identify the people who have the potential (and the potential desire) to replace you one day. In a larger organisation that might mean creating a really strong team of managers around you, in a small charity it might be about having a deputy who can share some of your leadership responsibilities and could step up into your role if you left. I created a deputy role when I became a Fundraising Director and it was brilliant for me because I could leave half of the team in their very capable hands and I had a peer I could have honest conversations with about difficult things. She and I helped each other through tricky times and when I left she was a wonderful Fundraising Director and the organisation and team had the stability of being led by someone they already knew and trusted.

. Use secondments and sabbaticals - to give people an opportunity to learn and have new experiences within the organisation. They'll gain new skills and you'll benefit form the insights they have uncovered from looking at fundraising from a different angle.

. Get good at internal interviews - internal candidates can sometimes be poorly treated. Make sure they get the same communication and insight that you share with other candidates via recruiters. And think about the messages you are sending to internal candidates.

. Give people development time - as Jenni Anderson points out in her interview, if you're spending 100% of your time doing your current role how are you going to be able to gain the new skills you need for the next level?


I was really interested to hear how some of the best Fundraising Directors approached succession planning.

Alan Gosschalk talked about his approach when he was at Scope said:

"I've really encouraged people to either try to get promoted internally or to consider being seconded, both within Fundraising and to other areas. For example, recently three fundraisers have gone into External Affairs. There's quite an active push to recruit internally, thus retaining knowledge and keeping staff longer than the stay of the average fundraiser."

Mark Astarita talked about retention at British Red Cross:

"I think that ultimately the most important ingredient in running a successful team is about managing exceptional people and getting the most out of them by giving them extraordinary opportunities to stretch, hopefully in a supportive environment that never feels unsafe and that matters. People excel when they're in a space where it's exciting, interesting, fun and they're at the edge of the possible. We challenge people to be their best and we look to help them get there. There is not a lot of room for the mediocre in the teams I manage. heck it stands out a mile!

We've pretty much home-grown most of our first, second and third tier managers. Part of that is because there's nowhere else where you can do it as this scale or volume if you haven't done it in one of our four or five competitors.

In terms of team structure at British Red Cross we have quite a steep pyramid. I have five or six people directly reporting to me, with steep pyramids underneath them. Second tier managers are my next level of talent. I'm always thinking about if someone gets run over by the bus, have I got someone there to replace that person? In the nicest possible way of course! I think I have five people who can replace me easily.

Another thing I think is really important is never to be fearful of your position. If you live in fear of your position, if you live in fear of your staff going to do you in or take your role then you're paralysed "

Kate Collins of Teenage Cancer Trust shares her thoughts on succession planning.

"I'm re-reading the 'Happy Manifesto' by Henry Stewart at the moment and it talks about how, in order to retain people who are really good at their jobs organisations tend to turn them into managers, which they might not always enjoy and has a very different skillset.

So in terms of retention, I'd love us to be able to be creative and brave enough to have a path for people who are bloody good fundraisers and don't then have to become managers to progress or be recognised. I certainly look at my team and look at what they do and think 'you're an amazing fundraiser'. So it's a very current thing for me, thinking around 'how do we help people have more internal stretch and collaboration and be a safe place to learn?' And I think sometimes that within your current organisation can be the scariest place to learn, because you can feel so exposed. I think people sometimes feel they need to go somewhere else to do their learning. Reinvent themselves. And it would be great to not have to do that.

And I think particularly with a growing organisation it's about making sure we don't lose that technical brilliance. I categorically know I've got people here who are technically better than I'll ever be so how do we let them fly and know that they're making progress without them having to move into management and away from fundraising?"

And Catherine Miles talks about having the right conversations about development.

"We have an overt emphasis on people's personal development and we're very open about the fact that we're investing in them for what they'll deliver here, but also equipping them for their future career that might be here or might be elsewhere, and that's okay. It's absolutely fine to have those conversations about where they want to go in their career very openly. I think that hopefully makes it an environment in which they feel like they're being invested in and they want to stay.

A lot of fundraising teams I've worked in have had a very weird thing about not being open about that, or everything around learning and development being within either very narrow confines of which training course do you want to go on, or "is this definitely going to help your job right here and now?" Obviously it's important to do that, but it's also about developing the individuals more broadly, which will benefit us in the long run, because the more great fundraisers we're pumping out into the sector, in the long run the better for everybody."

Recommended reading:

Playing Big by Tara Mohr

About the author

Carla Miller is a coach, consultant and facilitator, who works with charities and companies to create growth and develop happy, high-performing teams.


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