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Can Non-Profits Transition from a Leader to a Leaderless Organization?

The question more and more non-profits and religious organizations are asking today is, “Can we survive after losing our leader?” It’s apparent that organizations that begin without a clearly defined leader can set the stage for success. Think Red Cross or American Way for instance. But when an organization begins with a clearly defined leader, can it make the transition once that leader leaves or passes on? The Salvation Army has certainly done it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a leader in the business sense, but a public leader. Someone the public looks at as the face of the organization – someone who takes the heat. There is a record number of religious organizations today passing the generational mark, and some have successors, and some don’t. Some organizations began thinking about it years in advance, but sadly, not many. Most refuse to think about it, plan for the event, and when it comes, it hits them like a freight train.

You’d think it would simply be a re-branding issue. Portraying the organization as a “group” instead of a “person,” re-defining the ask, and creating a new identity. On the other hand, the public (meaning potential donors) want to see a face. They want a relationship with a person, not a building, an organization, or a group. They want personal accountability. Someone to acknowledge the success, or take the heat.

Can a non-profit organization that in the public mind has had a leader in the past, change their orientation? Can it work? Will people respond?  Let me know your thoughts. And if you think it can work, any suggestions for making that happen?

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7 Comments

  1. Yes it can.

    I have been involved with several of these over the years.  The ones that worked had these hallmarks:

    1) The plan was made long before the leader was gone

    2) The communication to the donors reflected a shift for years to come

    3) The ministry was prepared to communicate the day of the passing, and thus raised almost a year's income in the 30 days following (without involving heartbroken family and staff–it was ready to go and others could manage that for them.)

     4) The ministry was prepared for a major fall off of income following that spike.

    5) The new head had a new voice and vision that built on the old. They had talent of their own that was "pre tested".

    6) The new head honored the old in all communications (and products where appropriate.)

    Rarely can an in house team manage this, they are too close, too emotional.  Trust good outside advice.

  2. I'm trying to think of some examples where a "branded" ministry moved from a Strong personal association with a particular leader to a leaderless oragnization that maintained similar size and exposure and I'm having difficulty pointing to any.

    Joel Osteen comes to mind but really, he came into a situation with gifts and abilities different from his father and the ministry is not the same under him as it was under his father.  John Osteen was a strong voice but his impact and scope of ministry was far more narrow than what Joel's is today.  It's not a given that the Lakewood Church will maintain that position locally or nationally when Joel's ministry concludes and the issues they face will be more pronounced perhaps than what they were when John passed and Joel was thrust into a position that he had the strength of character and leadership to fit to his gifts and not try to be his father.

    Franklin Graham extended his ministry from his Father into Samaritan's Purse which I suspect will carry on with less impact to a leadership transition although the loss of Franklin's name recognition and credibility will undioubtedly have some impact that they should be planning for even now.

    The type of organization would have some impact.  A public ministry with the founder's name in the organization says a lot about what the underpinnings of the that ministry are built on.  One strategy might be to build in advance for the organization to break into parts rather than remain in a collective whole.  That's what's happening at ORU now and probably should have happened earlier.  Liberty University and the Falwell organization appears to have adopted a strategy in that realm and from what I can see although there is no single voice assuming the mantle of Jerry Falwell, the school and church are still solid and continuing well.

    Externally you have the branding and fund raising issues.  Those are more difficult to change in advance of the transition but need to be planned for and considered as to whether it can continue in its current form or needs to plan for a reduction in size and scope.  If that isn't done in advance the temptation to incur debt to try and maintain while hoping "something" happens is too great and the organization will be driven by it own needs rather than a vision for the future.

    Internally the structure of the organization and the leadership gifts and style should be looked at and if possible changed before the transition takes place.

    Can you think of any examples Phil where what you're asking here has taken place successfully?

  3. Although it may not be the perfect "apples and oranges" comparison, World Vision is an excellent example of a group that transitioned from a personality driven ministry to a leadership/organization driven one. Quick – name the leader of World Vision! You can't. Because WV's dynamic is that there are more than a dozen World Visions across the world that are part of a strong global cooperative. Today, WV as a partnership is a ONE BILLION dollar humanitarian group working in well over 100+ countries. One of the keys to their financial stability is child sponsorship with most support at $20-$30 given by at least half a million people monthly. This is the foundation of their budget and appeal. Plus, when a world crisis occurs, giving spikes up for aid and compassionate response – as it should.

    Now, the WV analogy may not fit perfectly when compared to media driven televangelist based ministries. But the similarities ARE there. WV started as a personality driven ministry headed by a mercurial, but visionary man, evangelist Bob Pierce. He started his group WITHOUT a personal or Christian name in the title. In retrospect, this was excellent branding for WV's name can mean many things to many people and w/o turning off secular givers. It's not like being called Oral Roberts Ministries. In the 60s and 70s when Pierce no longer was the head of WV, he went off and created Samaritan's Purse. WV went through a number of significant leaders for awhile – Stan Mooneyham and Ted Engstrom being the most famous – and there were certainly speed bumps along the way. But now each leader runs his or her WV component effectively. Emphasis is on the organization, not the leader. Btw, WV has been about branding for decades.

    Finally, WV has been about hiring good sharp people, paying them well and supporting them with the resources and tools they need to do a bang up good job. This is part of their internal success. There is something to be learned right there for many other Christian ministries.

  4. The name thing is certainly a serious issue. I discovered it when I called my company “Cooke Pictures.” When someone hires Cooke Pictures, they usually expect somebody named Cooke to show up. Which has been a challenge as we expand and grow and have more clients than I can personally handle. Had I called it “Sunset Productions” or something else, it wouldn’t have been so much of a problem….

  5. The name issue, we'd probably agree, might not be as serious when one gets to the level of Disney, for example. Disney's name has come to signify quality and creativity, imagination. The spirit of Walt is a brand unto itself, down to his iconic signature. It sounds like you're in the dynamic of growing pains where, as you said, Cooke Pictures' projects can't entirely be shepherded any more by the chief bottle washer…and your client roster must come to the understanding, eventually, that the production company is larger than its founder.

  6. The company I work for have a work system called ANT and a leadership system called LOCUST. ANT means: All-round Notably Thorough & LOCUST means: Leading Ourselves Closely United Standing Together. Both insects do not have leaders in place to achieve their goals but rather are driven by their in-built sense of purpose and strong sense of unity. As tiny as they are, when they are in teams they are formidable and can be highly devasting. We placed it in a positive purpose. Leaderless organisations are very possible especially when the leaders do not see themselves as the owners of the companies and are willing to release/delegate/relinquish power, control and authority to others (when you train people the idea is for them to be able to do it without your assistance after some time).

  7. I think that's true.  A lot of it too I think has to do with the type of work and people who are doing it.

    Highly creative people, which would probably include most of the people who read this blog, work better in general in a loose organization with more emphasis on the horizontal relationships.

    Less skilled or more mundane functions tend to require more vertical structuring with checks and measures incorporated into a chain of command and accountibility.

    What will work for most smaller organizations where everybody in the organization knows everyone and you are able to have people take ownership of the entire product, is not the norm in most organizations.

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