LCO 101: 9 Tips for Passing the Torch

Categories: LCO 101

Threats to climbing access often light a fire, rapidly bringing a climbing community together to fight for the areas we love. These short-term efforts burn hot and fast, but often die out quickly. Preserving access is a long-term game, and the advocate’s work is never truly done. That’s why it’s important to build a strong, sustainable local climbing organization (LCO) to ensure long-term protection of the climbing areas in your region. If you’re not asking “Who will do my work after I move on?” you’re setting your organization up for failure.

Photo courtesy of © Andrew Burr

Let’s be honest: sustaining a small volunteer non-profit and successfully transitioning leadership isn't easy. But it is rewarding. Here are 9 tips to help your LCO sustain the great work you’re doing.

  1. Think long-term…now. Make long-term thinking a priority and a habit. The pressing projects you’re engaged with—like acquisitions and trail days—are critical, but be sure to look ahead. Set aside time to discuss succession planning with your entire board. Ask: “What are we going to do to ensure our LCO continues to bring in the right people and be around for the long haul?” Outline a plan for how the organization will handle succession and leadership transition.
  2. Value organizational planning. This isn’t the kind of work that’s highlighted in your newsletters and social media feeds. But defining how your organization operates, outlining policies, writing bylaws, and crafting board job descriptions is just as important—maybe even more so—than buying a climbing area or pulling off an amazing trail day. Without a strong local climbing organization, the other victories wouldn’t be possible.
  3. Bring in new blood. You’re simply not doing your job if you’re not always keeping your eyes peeled for potential new board members and volunteers. Some of the best places to do this are at trail days or through committee work. Committees can be especially useful, because you can work closely with a volunteer and see firsthand how they carry out committee-level responsibilities. Public announcements for open board positions can also work.
  4. Seek diversity of all kinds. Don’t just populate your board with buddies and like-minded folks. Get outside your box. Diversity—gender, ethnic, climbing interest, geographic, socioeconomic, professional skills, and more—is good for the long-term health of your LCO. A diverse board and volunteer base is more relevant, better able to build community relationships, has more fundraising opportunity, ensures greater in-house talent, and shows an accurate representation of the climbing community.
  5. Define board roles and mentor. Don’t throw new board members in the deep end. Provide a job description for board roles. They can be brief, but make them specific so that new folks have a clear idea of their responsibilities and how long their term lasts. Give every new board member a Big Brother or Big Sister board member to help them on-board smoothly and provide a touchstone of institutional memory to ensure they are successful.
  6. Rely on structure, not personality. Establish a commonly understood organizational leadership structure and process that facilitates board member development, succession, and transition. If you leave it to chance, or rely on energetic individuals to dive in and sort it out, you'll get stuck in the LCO boom and bust cycle, and end up with volunteer burn-out and instability. You probably already have roles in place. Be sure to spread and share responsibilities across the entire board so that valuable skills aren’t siloed. Think of board roles as chores or tasks that we can all learn to do well, and that every board member must take a turn at. Then establish expectations for each role related to succession. Your president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer should facilitate and train succession—that’s partly what they’re for!
  7. Set term limits! It’s easy to get so caught up in our good work that we think we can do it forever. But you can’t last forever. Term limits give board members a horizon for their work, preventing burnout and bringing fresh blood and talent into the organization. They are a critical mechanism in your bylaws that facilitate succession and protect your volunteers’ investment and success. Don’t subscribe to the myth that leadership is a unique skill or quality that only a few, charismatic individuals possess.
  8. Don’t take succession planning personally. Succession and transition are nice sounding words, but let’s be honest—we’re talking about people who have stepped up and given time and energy to make your LCO what it is today. When it’s your turn to transition out of an active role, don’t take it personally or see it as a reflection on your performance. Succession planning is about protecting your legacy and the legacy of those who came before you. It’s not personal. Take steps to ensure that your good work continues on, whomever is behind the wheel.
  9. Preserve institutional wisdom and memory. LCO founders and retired board members have resources, wisdom, and experience that should be used and preserved. Emeritus positions, honorary board membership, committee involvement, and fundraising are a few of the ways to keep your foremothers and fathers engaged. Consulting previous board members and heeding lessons from the past is key to good, well-informed decision making. Don’t repeat past mistakes. Use that institutional knowledge to chart a better course.

Attend the 2017 Climber Advocate Summit

Have you registered for the 2017 Climber Advocate Summit on Sept 9-10? It's the perfect opportunity to begin succession training: come in twos—an experienced board member and a newer one.
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