If they don't know when to walk away, the tenacity of charity founders works against us

We have excellent leaders in the sector, but too many of them outstay their welcome, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

The announcement by Bryn Parry that he is standing down as chief executive of Help for Heroes provides an all-too rare example of how charity founders can exit with grace.

Charities have some excellent leaders, but their talents are often undermined simply because they outstay their welcome.

Bryn, who co-founded H4H with his wife Emma, has not had an easy few years, with the charity having come under a number of attacks from the media. Nevertheless, his decision to move on and actively plan his succession gives Help for Heroes the opportunity to continue to prosper after his departure.

As a sector, we're not fond of goodbyes. Whether it be bidding farewell to long-standing leaders or closing down functions that are no longer useful, we're not good at moving on. We have plenty of ideas for new projects, but we can't bring ourselves to stop doing. Rather than close something down, we seem compelled to wear ourselves out by trying to do it all.

Maybe we keep going because of our passion for the cause, or because we feel pressured by funders. Perhaps there are people who want to maintain a service or vocal staff we don't want to offend. Or maybe we feel duty-bound to overwork - there is certainly a culture in many charities that we must be seen to be busy.

Charities champion causes that would otherwise be ignored, and this requires us to keep going when others would give up. But if we don't know when to walk away, this tenacity works against us. Whatever the reason, our reluctance to say goodbye holds us back.

Strong leaders are crucial to helping charities get established or navigate a particularly difficult time. However, over time their refusal to let others lead and be followers themselves can be interpreted as a lack of faith in their colleagues' abilities. Their concern to take care of the charity can unwittingly nurture staff who lack the confidence to take the charity forward without them.

Similarly, when we don't close down functions that are no longer effective, we create unrealistic expectations of stability among staff and volunteers. It can quietly deskill as they become so used to the service that they lack the confidence to move beyond it. It might be well intentioned, but our reluctance to say goodbye tempts us into overworking and gives us a reputation for being inefficient.

So how can you tell if you or your charity might be hanging around too long? If any individual is regarded as irreplaceable, start thinking about succession plans. If you have functions and services whose closure cannot be countenanced, then start discussing exit plans and the conditions under which you will close down. If you are developing new work, consider what you will need to stop doing to create the necessary time. And invest in your staff and volunteers - make sure they have the skills and confidence to take up other work when the time comes.

We need to move on from individuals and services that are no longer working for the organisation and create space for new opportunities. Goodbyes can be sad, but they can also be liberating. We should use them to help us focus on what is needed of us right now.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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