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Deconstructing the cult of the personality

Charismatic leaders are prone to build an organisation around themselves, and the voluntary sector is no different - so what lessons can be learned from the Haiti disaster about succession planning? Good outfits will thrive whoever is in charge, says Daniela Barone Soares
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Zilda Arns
Zilda Arns, founder and president of Pastoral da Criança, helping children n Brazil

Among the many victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti was Zilda Arns. Mrs Arns was the founder and president of "Pastoral da Criança", an organisation that capacitates and empowers (mainly) women to go door to door, travelling to some of the remotest areas in Brazil and other South American countries to fight malnutrition and infant mortality.

Mrs Arns was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, as her initiative achieved a 50% reduction in infant mortality rates. Her organisation, Pastoral is present in 42,000 Brazilian communities, with 260,000 trained volunteers attending to 1.8 million children under the age of six every year.

In those communities, the infant mortality rate is 11 per 1,000 births; in Brazil overall it is 22.5.

I was in Brazil when her death was announced, and watched with admiration as her second-in-charge took her first interview about the sad news. Even on the occasion of the tragic death of her charismatic founder-leader, Maria Ceiça was able to speak confidently about the plans Pastoral had for 2010 and beyond. Nothing had changed to continue saving many more young lives.

This is very inspirational and often rare in the voluntary sector, where so many charismatic leaders build a charity around themselves without looking at its sustainability beyond their "term", whatever that might mean.

I was once interviewing a chief executive from a social enterprise we were considering for investment, who asked me if at Impetus we would be concerned with succession planning because she was over 60.

Succession planning is not about age or death

I said we would be concerned about succession planning even if she were 35. Succession planning is not about age or death; it is about creating the foundation for perpetuating and growing the impact of the organisation beyond the founder or the person at the top.

In the voluntary sector, where there is often a lack of management development beyond the senior echelons of the organisation (and more often than not, beyond the chief executive or charismatic founder), succession planning can go unattended. The fortunes of the organisation remain tied to the fortunes of one individual.

In our experience investing in and accelerating the growth of high-potential charities and social enterprises, we know that this is not only unwise; it is ineffective and wasteful.

There is no denying that having a strong and visionary leader is critical to the charities we invest in. But that alone is rarely enough, if a social enterprise is to fulfil its potential in society. During our 3-5-year partnership with the poverty-fighting charities in the Impetus portfolio, an important focus of our work is around building this important infrastructure – developing the senior management team and greater financial stability – to create the solid foundations they will need to multiply in size and be able to help more people.

Sadly, the current project-based funding environment in the voluntary sector promotes short-termism and hamster-wheel chasing of money that can prevent the leadership from being able to think beyond the next few quarters.

Long-term planning – including succession planning – often takes a back seat to the demands of staying afloat today. In addition, because succession planning can be uncomfortable for the very people who are tasked to think about it, they may be tempted to avoid dealing with it. For many, there is an intrinsic fear of making oneself 'replaceable' (and this is certainly not a feature of the voluntary sector alone).

More money and support for long-term strategy planning

The voluntary sector could do with more help in planning for succession – both in the area of key posts and people, but also around organisation structure and knowledge management, which encompass the whole organisation and prepare it for change. On another level, we need to find more money and support for long-term strategy planning and capacity building of our best charities, if they are going to be sustainable and equipped to tackle some of our most pressing social issues.

Because individuals are not perpetual, we owe it to society, to these organisations' supporters and above all to their beneficiaries, to build organisations that are independent and can reach beyond the founders' reach.

Hence, paradoxically, because Mrs Arns made herself dispensable, her example is unforgettable and her legacy will perpetuate everything she believed in and fought for.

Unlike many charities that die when the founders leave or die, her name and legacy will live on. And so will the 2 million infants whose lives will be saved every year by Pastoral in the years to come.

Daniela Barone Soares is the chief executive of Impetus Trust, the pioneer of venture philanthropy in the UK. Impetus provides charities and social enterprises with unrestricted grants, management support and specialist expertise, to build their capacity so they can help many more people

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