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June 18, 2024, 12:29 p.m.
Business Models

What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard

“Any organization that is dependent on having a founder around is inherently unsustainable.”

— In 2019, Mukhtar Ibrahim launched the nonprofit Sahan Journal to cover Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color.

Almost five years later, the outlet he established has become an inspiration for other nonprofit news founders across the country. Sahan Journal has grown from a one-man show to a staff of 20+, and from an annual budget in the hundreds of thousands to a budget today of $3 million.

But in those five years, Ibrahim’s personal life has changed, too. Last summer, his family welcomed a fourth child (a son, joining their three daughters under age 10). While on parental leave, Ibrahim wrote, he “found myself thinking about the story my girls would tell about their family. How would they remember the family experiences we’ve had together — and all the time apart?”

That’s why, last October, Ibrahim announced his decision to step down. But he wouldn’t do so right away: Instead, he would stay on until his successor was chosen, and would support the board of directors’ search for a new CEO. That process is ongoing today.

Last week, Ibrahim spoke on a panel at the Institute for Nonprofit News’ annual conference, INN Days, about the importance of succession planning for every nonprofit news organization. He was joined by Amy Kovac-Ashley, executive director of the Tiny News Collective and author of a free News Executive Leadership Transition Guide, and Richard Young, the founder and executive director of nonprofit education and local news hub CivicLex in Lexington, Kentucky.

The panel, moderated by INN director of leadership and talent development Sara Shahriari, offered tips for other nonprofit news founders about making succession planning a priority at a time when many (from City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday last summer, to MLK50’s Wendi Thomas just last month) have steered their outlets to maturity or stability, and are handing the reins to a new guard of leaders. Succession planning, panelists emphasized, is a must to build organizational resilience in case of an emergency, like a leader’s sudden illness. On top of that, though, they described succession planning as an opportunity to audit the entire organization’s health and emerge from that process stronger.

INN data shows that the majority of member organizations “don’t have any kind of succession plan,” according to Shahriari. “I hope that at the end of today,” she said, “if you currently feel anxiety when you’re thinking about succession planning — maybe you want to breathe into a paper bag, which is certainly the way I used to feel about it — you’ll leave here with an idea of the process and some really concrete steps that you can take to make that a reality.”

Normalize succession planning (get past the anxiety!)

Kovac-Ashley noted that she’s been on both sides of the succession planning process — she took over from Tiny News’ founders about six months ago, after leaving an executive role at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

There are two kinds of succession plans, she explained: the emergency kind (for when someone gets sick or “wins the lottery and runs off to Costa Rica”) and “departure-defined succession planning.”

Every organization, especially the smallest ones, needs a plan for emergencies for the sake of the organization’s sustainability. “It’s sort of like a health check for your organization to have that emergency succession plan in place,” she said. “And it’s also a really great way to think about how you set up your operations in a way that more people than just one know what’s going on.”

Departure-defined succession planning, on the other hand, is more like what Ibrahim is in the midst of: he’s decided it’s the right time for him to leave, but it’s not an abrupt departure.

In many cases, talking openly about the latter kind of succession planning can be taboo, Kovac-Ashley said — but it shouldn’t be.

“It’s something that I think a lot of folks get scared to say anything about, because they think the minute they say something about it that their board, or other staff, might freak out and think you’re leaving right away,” she said.

“Let’s try to normalize having a conversation around succession planning,” she added. “None of us is going to live forever. We know this. So let’s think about what the things are that we can do to support the organizations that we’re part of for as long as we’re part of them, and understand that there will be a season and a time for us to not be part of them anymore, and to normalize the conversations with boards, with funders, etc., that it’s okay — and that actually, a successful succession is a matter of having good organizational health.”

Richard Young, of CivicLex, started the succession planning process last year after taking a six-week sabbatical. He isn’t planning on leaving the organization he founded in 2017 anytime soon — but he wants his organization to be prepared for whenever the time does come for him to step back. Between his sabbatical, and some reflection as part of INN’s Emerging Leaders Council last year, “I sort of came to this realization that for our organization to ever actually be sustainable, to ever actually feel stable, it had to be okay with me being gone,” he said. “Any organization that is dependent on having a founder around is inherently unsustainable.”

To kick off that process, he started talking with his board president, who was supportive from the beginning, he said. Next — before talking to other board members — he began having conversations with his staff to understand what would be the “immediate catastrophes if I left.”

Having these conversations with staff and board members, he said, “I think everyone had this collective realization of ‘Oh, wow, this could actually be a wonderful process for our organization’” — a chance to take a hard, proactive look at what was and wasn’t working, and how to plan long-term to fix what wasn’t.

On a personal level, for Young, starting this process ended up taking a tremendous weight off his shoulders. It helped him feel that CivicLex was surmounting the “mad scramble for stability that I feel like happens in your first few years — I felt like we arrived at a point where I can feel a lot more relaxed about the state of the health of our organization.”

Ibrahim said that on top of realizing he wanted to put his family first last summer, his time on parental leave helped him take a step back and realize how well Sahan Journal was doing. “I realized how the organization was running smoothly without me around,” he said. And he reflected that bringing someone in while things were stable at Sahan Journal would be the best thing for the organization. (When he announced his own succession planning process, Sahan Journal didn’t have an emergency succession plan.)

“I was thinking from a legacy perspective, from an organizational perspective, because I want this work to continue,” Ibrahim said. (In response to a question, he noted that this mindset can also help with the emotional challenge of succession planning — of disentangling your own identity from that of the organization you created and poured so much into.)

Sahan Journal is still interviewing candidates. Ibrahim said the succession planning process can take a year or two — “founders need to realize that it’s a long process.” He plans to stay on to help onboard his successor, and then, “in consultation with that person, I will see what’s next for me.”

The board’s role in succession planning

The board needs to take a leadership role in succession planning, Kovac-Ashley said. When counseling founders on succession planning, she always starts by asking about their relationship with their board members.

“You don’t choose your own successor,” she emphasized. “From a nonprofit standpoint, that is bad governance. The board is the one that chooses the successor” because oversight of the executive is a core function of a nonprofit board.

This means that nonprofit news leaders should think about leadership transition experience as an asset when evaluating potential board members. An organization’s founding board may not have any experience with succession planning, in which case it might be worth bringing on board members who do have that experience.

At Sahan Journal, a search committee including board members, funders, and staff members is driving the search process, Ibrahim said. He gets regular updates from the committee, but they’re in charge.

Don’t let your succession plan get “moldy”

An organization shouldn’t just create a plan and let it gather dust on a shelf for years; you don’t want a “moldy succession plan,” Shahriari said.

“If you have a plan, you should treat it like it’s your smoke detector,” Kovac-Ashley added. “Every six months, you’re supposed to put new batteries in your smoke detector; it’s a matter of safety.” A succession plan, to remain viable and be most useful, requires the same kind of upkeep.

Outlets can do six-month or annual reviews of the plan, or walk through it when they onboard a new board member, Kovac-Ashley said. But “it shouldn’t be just a document; it should be a living, breathing document that you actually use as you’re going about the business of your organization.”

CivicLex’s board and staff now both do an annual review of the organization’s succession plan, Young said, “to understand: Where are we in implementing some of the goals that we set out, both for my role and for capacity-building?”

One area that came into focus in Young’s succession planning: professional development. Funds that existed internally for professional development and travel weren’t being used much. So CivicLex’s succession plan includes a section focused on “capacity building and leadership development for our staff.”

On the staff side, the organization doubled professional development funds by adding a personal development fund (which can go toward, say, a bike, or a gym membership). The team also planned a series of staff retreats and created professional development tracks for each staff member aimed at helping them develop skills that will support the organization whenever Young leaves. And as part of a greater focus on structured organizational planning, the team now does annual retreats focused exclusively on how they work as an organization.

Another plan section deals with making Young’s position, executive director, more “marketable” — including thinking through what components of his job could be removed to make it more appealing to potential candidates. When considering potential internal candidates for his role, one explicitly told him she did not want his job, so he created a deputy director position for her that could support organizational continuity.

Kovac-Ashley said it’s important to have candid conversations as far in advance as possible with any internal candidates who could take on a leadership position (especially for emergency succession planning), to prepare them and figure out the kinds of professional development support they might need to feel prepared and confident in that role.

Preparing an internal candidate for leadership can have an added benefit of creating a co-leadership model, she added — which can lessen some of the isolation and pressure inherent to the burden of leadership, and leave both the leaders and the organization better off.

Communicate thoughtfully with everyone — especially your audience and your funders

Before announcing his transition, Ibrahim planned extensively for how to communicate his departure to his audience.

He called communication “one of the most important parts of succession planning.” After having one-on-ones with staff, board members, funders, and other stakeholders over multiple months, once the transition was announced publicly, he’s tried to err on the side of over-communicating with the audience. He’s written letters, called people, and engaged with local press, and continues to provide updates about the status of the search process through the organization and via his own social media.

There will still always be people who aren’t seeing your message, he emphasized. “You have to assume that a lot of people don’t even see those things that you’re putting out,” he said. “And you have to be able to answer all of those questions.” People still ask him why he’s leaving, and if there’s “something else that is going on, because it’s unusual for someone to go found an organization, and then leave at its peak, when everything is really good.”

Kovac-Ashley offered a word of caution about executive search firms. On top of some being expensive, most (but not all) have an aversion to this kind of transparency — both to communicating with audiences, and especially to keeping staff in the loop about a search process. “Those that don’t involve staff in organizations such as yours that are so mission-bound and most likely are pretty small organizations — that’s a huge red flag,” she warned.

Communicating with funders is another high-stakes component of succession planning. It’s been critical for Ibrahim to manage his relationships with funders so they want to keep investing in the organization. “Some funders freak out if you’re a founder and you’re stepping down,” Ibrahim said. “The funder management part of the process…I’ve been spending a lot of time [on] that side of the equation because ultimately, I want the funding to continue; I want the funders to understand that Sahan Journal can continue and continue to thrive even if I step back.”

He’s managed this in part by keeping himself highly visible and present in funder circles, communicating this planning openly and providing updates (including by attending conferences). “Funders have deep relationships with you” as the founder, he said. “They see you, they trust you, and they are invested in you, in some ways.”

For Young’s part, putting more money into professional development has also meant building up CivicLex’s travel budget so he can take more staff with him to conferences. (Specifically, he asked his board to multiply that budget “by five.” His board president was immediately supportive, while other members took more convincing.) His reasoning: Conferences teach staff what’s going on in the rest of the field and allow them to meet and recognize funders — Young can’t be the only one with that knowledge for the organizational health of CivicLex.

“Whenever I go, if my staff don’t know the funders…[if they] can’t recognize them, or don’t know what’s happening in the field, or all of that — that’s a huge, huge, huge…capacity gap in the organization,” he said. “That’s the thing that scares me the most.”

At times, bringing two or three people to conferences, instead of just one, feels “a little frivolous,” he said. “But it is actually really meaningful investments in our long-term success.”

Introducing staff to funders also means including them on key calls, and taking them out to drinks with funders passing through town.

And, it means everybody at CivicLex has to be visible in the community: “No one on our staff is immune from having to show up to public events in Lexington and set up a table and talk about what we do.” Young, meanwhile, sometimes makes an effort to step back, allowing staff to be the face of the organization themselves at certain events. (He referred to this as “distributed relationship management” — ensuring key community and philanthropic relationships are not just carried by him, but rather, distributed throughout staff at the organization.)

The bottom line about succession planning, Shahriari said, is to get started now: “Talk about it, do it, make the first steps…It’s hard, but it’s so important.”

Photo of runners passing a baton by Benis Arapovic on Vecteezy.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     June 18, 2024, 12:29 p.m.
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