I would like to thank Emma Abele, Jemima Jones, Jessica McCurdy, Harry Taussig, and Emma Williamson for their feedback on this post.
Introduction and motivation
Intended audience: campus community builders and individuals who are interested in improving campus community building generally.
I think that proper succession planning is a straightforward way to make an EA student group 1) less likely to fizzle out and 2) increase community builder capacity.
By succession planning, I mean creating plans to hand the role of “main campus community builder” from one person to the next. Many of the points here generalize to other roles within the student org, but this post focuses on that succession in particular.
Motivation: Convince university group organizers that succession planning is important enough that they should discuss it at the next leadership meeting. The claims in this post are not controversial. The problem is not that people don’t think succession planning is worth doing. Rather, the propensity with which university groups fizzle out is high enough that it appears succession planning is either 1) not given high enough precedence that it actually gets done or 2) done far enough in advance that it is useful. This post highlights positive outcomes of succession and identifies specific actions your student group can take to have a smooth succession.
Two positive consequences of succession planning
Succession planning increases the probability of group survival
EA student groups are relatively fragile organizations at risk of “fizzling out”. When I use the term “fizzling out”, I mean something like “this group is in such a state of decline that it is not valuable for existing members nor enticing for people who are sympathetic to EA ideas.” This can take a number of forms, including some of the following:
- The university group is ineffective at developing its current and new members’ understanding of EA concepts
- The university group is so disorganized that events don’t happen or are not attended
- The university group completely disbands
University groups, compared to other organizations, are at higher risk of fizzling out because of factors incidental to undergraduate education, including:
- High turnover – roughly 25% of all potential members leave every year
- Limited time for organizers to gain expertise – 4 years, plus maybe an extra year
- Interrupted programming – During the summer, most student groups go dormant
- Minimal training – Students, relative to members of other organizations, are not experienced managers
Student groups are unlike other organizations. Even when a student group is in good health, these factors threaten a group's existence. Therefore, student group leaders should be especially proactive about doing things to maintain the organization into the future. Creating and following through with succession plans is one such way to make the student group more resilient to the risk of fizzling out.
Succession planning increases organizational capacity
Over the short tenure of a community builder’s experience leading a student group, they learn a bunch of things about how to run a group. When they leave the group, a bunch of knowledge goes with them. Some of this knowledge is experiential and it wouldn’t be useful to try to explain it to your successor. However, documenting things like how to run a successful retreat, or creating a checklist of action items to promote a fellowship can make the successor’s life easier.
In general, when student groups retain institutional knowledge, it is easier for successors to build on that knowledge. It also helps to save the successor’s time. With the additional effort saved, the leader can spend time doing more useful things like creating improvements to existing programs, trying new things, and developing their understanding of EA concepts.
Succession actions to consider
Things you can do today: If you are part of the leadership of an EA student group, ask yourself if your group has succession plans. If not, add it to the agenda for your group’s next meeting. If you are in a non-leadership position of a student group, ask the organizers what actions they have taken to ensure a smooth transition.
Example succession strategies
- Think carefully about who should run the group
- There is a tendency to hand the reigns of the group to the person most excited to run the group. Consider whether this person is also the best fit for managing the group. Excitement and good community building skills do not necessarily coincide.
- Begin succession early, really early
- Plan such that the current leader is in a hands-off advisory role by their last semester. The student group runs as it would, but the previous group organizer is within arms reach in case help is needed.
- Yale Effective Altruism has maintained a tradition of the main group organizer stepping down from their very busy role to an advisory role during their last year. This has been a relevant factor in increasing our organizational capacity.
- Work together
- Before a transition, potential successors should work alongside the main group organizer for training.
- Anticipate leadership bottlenecks
- Is everyone in your EA group in the same graduating class? Take extra effort to identify someone in a lower year who would be good for a leadership position.
- Document institutionalized knowledge
- Write down the things that you would like to have known before managing your university group
- Aggregate the resources that were useful to you (e.g. bookmarks, specific documents, points of contact, etc.)
- Create standard operating procedures (one form of documenting institutionalized knowledge)
- Some projects, like retreats, follow similar procedures each time they are run. Make a checklist for these sorts of things. Yale EA uses Asana templates, which save a ton of time.
- Set time aside for mentorship meetings
- After transitioning out, schedule regular check-ins with the current leadership.
I agree that student groups should prioritize succession planning, so thanks for writing this! Just want to note for readers of this post that the EA Groups Resource Centre has this resource on Handing Over Leadership. It could use some updating (such as linking to this post), which we'll probably do over the next few weeks, but I think it has helpful information and resources on how to go about succession planning.
I am afraid of writing. To confront this fear, I am committing to publishing one post each day June 28 to July 2.
If you have feedback on the style that wouldn’t be better posted as a public comment, please let me know here.
Edit: Pausing the post marathon due to sickness.