NGO leadership: time to embrace transformation as part of succession planning

21 September 2018 | Khaya Tyatya (Education Specialist) |

In recent years the leadership of NGOs, non-profit companies and independent trusts (commonly referred to as civil society organisations) has come under pressure both from a transformation and delivery point of view. This includes regarding their ability to reinvent themselves in our changing developmental landscape.  While these organisations have always been commended for the good work they are involved in, particularly in impoverished communities, the slow pace of transformation in the sector has attracted newfound attention given that the private sector and society in general are expected to embrace this national imperative.

As with many industries in South Africa, transformation in the NGO sector remains slow. One of the reasons often given for this is “founder’s syndrome” – an ongoing skewed dependence on the person who founded the organisation. This is not sustainable in the long term and one of the issues Tshikululu actively addresses in our role as “intermediary” between corporate donors and civil society organisations.

For transformation to be meaningful however, it must be driven not only from a purely race perspective but also from a capacity-building and succession planning perspective. To this end, Tshikululu has designed several initiatives for our clients that place transformation at the forefront of organisational succession planning.

One example is a programme conceptualised as a capacity-building initiative for non-profit organisations (NPOs) to strengthen governance, management and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) capacity, as well as embed succession planning. This thinking was influenced by several international studies which have shown that a three to four-month sabbatical for founders or leaders of NPOs typically helped them to improve organisational efficiency, revitalise the leader’s “purpose” and prepared the organisations for new leadership.

In 2015, Tshikululu and our client designed the programme and invited current partner organisations to apply. One of the criteria stipulated that the current leader had to have served the organisation for at least eight years, with at least five as the leader. The programme ran for 18 months: the first 12 months were used for effective planning; the next four for the actual sabbatical and the final two for the post-sabbatical period.

The success of the programme speaks for itself. Before the start of the programme, 80% of the organisations’ leaders/founders were white females. After the 18-month programme, 60% of the leaders were black, with 80% of the organisations’ boards reporting improvement in roles and responsibilities. For the interim leader, the programme acted as a dry run for future leadership of the organisation. Technical support involving mentoring and coaching was provided to the interim leader for the day-to-day operations, which they indicated enabled them to succeed in the founder’s absence.

Another transformation initiative we have led involved designing a transformation programme for think-tanks working in the country. Here Tshikululu worked with these organisations to put steps and criteria in place to attract and retain younger black researchers in middle and senior management positions (and implement deliberate strategies to recruit people with disabilities into their ranks). Funding received from one of our clients was provided to help these organisations achieve transformation objectives.

One of the key lessons learned throughout these programmes is that succession planning, and by implication transformation, does not happen by default. It requires open and honest conversations, and a deliberate and targeted approach to make meaningful change. If organisations want to stay socially relevant and attract young, vibrant and agile leaders, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about succession and transformation are required. Transformation is not only an issue for government or the for-profit world. Surely, social investors and non-profits must embrace this issue as well. If we don’t, we will fail to achieve the developmental goals of the country, and run the risk of becoming leaders who are stuck in a paradigm that is odds with the ever-changing South African landscape.