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Section 5 | Succession Planning

You may be completely revved up to start a legitimate student group at your school. You may have what it takes to create a vibrant community of young freethinkers on your campus. You may even become an active participant in the national movement. But eventually you are going to graduate. That is why you must plan ahead to ensure the group continues without you. This is especially important at a smaller college where groups have an even greater tendency to dissolve without strong initiative. Succession planning is possibly the most important function you can focus on to ensure group survival.

We lose about 12% of SSA affiliate groups every semester; the majority of these are from leadership "failures." Leaders lose interest in the group, graduate without electing replacement(s), or after they graduate new leaders don't have the knowledge, resources, and experience to take over. Another problem that occurs occasionally is that one leader "cares too much" and does all of the work instead of delegating - becoming such a big part of what the group is that the group loses its function after (s)he graduates. Because problems with leadership turnover are the biggest reason for group failure, you need to be considering long-term succession even when setting up a new group.

General Succession Advice

Time Your Leadership
In a four-year college setting, it is ideal to have juniors be officers. That way busy, senior-year members can relax and act as mentors to your new leaders. Note that this means you need to groom, nominate, and elect sophomore members to be leaders next year.

Plant the Seed
Who cares about your group and its survival? Who will help to carry your group forward with or without an officer position? Cultivate a culture of responsibility in all of your group members so that when help is needed there will be someone to step up.

Cross Train
If only one person in your group knows how to do something, you're in trouble. If she or he gets sick or leaves the group, you will be in a difficult situation. Do your best to have officers train at least one other person in the group in their roles and responsibilities.


Cliché but true…

From the start of your student group tasks should be shared between officers and members. If delegation isn't occurring, burnout will.

Diversify and Open Up
Don't hoard power and responsibility. Any new member has great leadership potential, but if you don't give them opportunities to lead, that potential will never be realized. Utilize each individual's talents and interests, and do not pigeonhole or assume someone would do a bad job when they haven't been given the chance. If possible, diversify those who lead the group. Try to cultivate leadership of various viewpoints on the freethinking spectrum, different genders, and especially different ages/graduation years. Leaders often set the tone for a group and having all of one type can leave people feeling alienated. Having different graduation years helps the group maintain consistency, experience, and a better chance at long-term success.

Preserve the Core
The character of most organizations is determined largely by its leaders. As people change, the organization is going to change - which is a good thing. However, odds are there are some core aspects of the group you do not want to change. The most obvious aspect is your group's commitment to naturalism. There may be other elements you believe are core to your group's identity. Make sure you write down these core values, talk about them with the new leaders and practice them in your own leadership. You need to use both the written word and organizational traditions to preserve what is most important about your group. Try to pick just three to six things and focus on them. The fewer core values you pick, the more likely those values will be to survive.

Document Best Practices
The more you write down about the job you do, the better. If you get sick or leave the group, the new leaders will have your notes. One possibility is to write up a short report on all events, detailing what went into them (with dollar amounts and contact info); these reports can be put in a three-ring binder and passed down.

When Should We Elect Our New Leaders?
Ideally you should elect new leaders mid-year (soon after winter break, before spring break). That gives you the first half of the school year to identify and start training possible leaders, and the second half of the year to mentor and prepare new officers for next year. Some schools have requirements regarding officer elections; be sure to be in compliance with stated guidelines. Generally it is a good idea to have new officers start learning and picking up responsibilities before the end of the year.

Consider requiring each new officer to plan or facilitate one of your meetings or events before the end of the school year. Summer vacation is a hard time for student groups - people go on vacation, move out of town, and stop responding to emails. Clear up position responsibilities and transfer any necessary supplies or files to new officers BEFORE the school year ends.

Keep in contact with old / retired officers and advisors. One way to do so is by having a closed Facebook or Google Group for officers. Even after officers step down, keep them on these lists so they can easily advise the new leadership. Also be sure to email the SSA Campus Organizer [email protected] to update your group's contact information and / or officer roster.

Planning for a Successful Succession

1. Identify Key Roles
Key roles are ones that are critical to the success of your group, like President and Treasurer. When you begin succession planning, evaluate these roles to see if they are accurate, necessary, and sufficient. If the current leaders are highly dedicated, but future leaders may not be willing to put in so much time, it might be a good idea to divide roles between more people. These new roles could be chairs for specific activities or functions, like volunteering, website management, or social chair. If a group is smaller, it might be a good idea to delete a position that is unnecessary or unlikely to be filled.

2. Survey Current Situation
Are people with the required skills and talents already excited about running for leadership positions for next year? Are there people in the group who might do a better job but simply have not identified themselves as good for the role? How about two years down the road? If you've got it covered for two years down the road, you're likely okay. Otherwise, ask yourself who within the group could do the best job at these key roles. Do you need to find ways to draw in new people outside of the group that might become leaders?

3. Directly Approach Potential Leaders
If you have the feeling that someone would be good in a leadership role, take them aside after a meeting and tell them. Be as specific as possible both about what the responsibilities of the job are and why you think he or she would be good at the role.

4. Nurture / Mentor
Once you have someone who is at least tentatively interested in a key role, have that person begin to work with the person that presently holds the role. Perhaps she or he can act as an assistant, or just watch the current role holder work. Your school may offer training for that role-do whatever you can to get the potential leader into that training.

5. Support
When the new person has taken on the role, don't abandon them. If it is at all possible for you to stay around and support them, do so. Ideally, get the person into the role a year before you graduate so you can simply be available as a resource when (s)he needs you. Your final year may be quite busy… job hunting, finishing up a thesis, etc. may make you a less than ideal choice for filling a key role anyway. If you cannot physically be around during his/her first year in the position, give the new leader your phone number and email address. Make a commitment to answering his/her requests for help promptly. Pass on any resources you utilized to your new leaders, including a copy of this guide.

6. Repeat
Make sure you impart the importance of succession planning to the new crop of leaders. It's very common for a group to die after its second crop of leaders graduate. Make sure that you transfer all necessary knowledge and resources to your new leaders before your school goes on summer break!

Camp Quest

The vital transmission of knowledge from one generation of freethinkers to the next (Camp Quest).

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