You may not plan to leave your organization for a long time, but your greatest legacy will be to ensure that the organization will continue operating smoothly and sustainability so that your organization’s mission is served long after you leave.
The responsibilities of an executive position, especially at smaller and growing organizations, can seem limitless. Evidence suggests that nonprofits tend to devote every available dollar to programs, short-changing staff functions like fund development, accounting, and marketing—which means those duties end up concentrated at the top. If you have only a few employees, you may have no choice but to take on all these tasks initially. But is that sustainable in the long run?
I like to use the allegory of the frog in the pot: A departing executive may not have noticed the water reaching a boil, but anyone considering the position can see that the heat has been turned all the way up. That’s why, when I conduct an executive search for a senior position, one of the first things we ask is, “How doable is this job?”
Even with additional staff or the funds to hire more, it takes a change in mindset to reduce your workload. One way to rethink your mindset is by updating your job description: Identify the large “buckets” first, like strategy, finances, programs, data, fundraising, and board stewardship. Within each bucket, list the specific duties you perform. Order them with delegation in mind, beginning with the tasks only you can perform, followed by those another director or manager might handle, and concluding with those you’ve meant to hand off but haven’t been able to. Then ask yourself:
If you shared this job description, would anyone jump at the chance to take your place?
What tasks are you holding onto because you think no one else can do them? Who could take over these tasks with very little instruction?
What are you holding onto because you never thought about handing it off?
What are you holding onto because, by performing that function, you find out what’s happening in the business? (This will be your hardest category to relinquish, even if it’s something as simple as opening the mail.)
These are the same questions we ask clients when developing an emergency succession plan, allowing us to assign responsibilities among existing staff and volunteers in the event a key role remains empty for a time. (In our workshops on the topic, we privately ask ourselves how many participants will realize they can hand off some of their tasks right away!)
Once you’ve determined some of the responsibilities you can delegate, the next step is to write down what you should be doing but haven’t been able to get to. This is where the real value is: Once you realize the benefits of the trade-off, you’ll be going back to your list to identify more, higher-level responsibilities worth relinquishing.
Finally, you can gather your managers, key volunteers, and board members to figure out a plan for making changes. Include clear rubrics for decision-making and communication, and be sure to build new positions into your strategic plan and your budget.
Your plan may take years to implement, so start now. One big step you can take immediately: Helping all stakeholders -- funders, board, staff, and (mostly importantly) yourself – understand this investment of funds, and everyone’s time, in reorganizing the workload is critical to sustainability, and the gateway to deepening impact.
Mary Hughes is a senior consultant at the Georgia Center for Nonprofit’s Nonprofit Consulting Group, focusing on CEO/executive director search and transition, as well as leadership sustainability planning and leadership development.
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