Finding the right successor

Mel Young and Jeroo Billimoria

Are the problems of succession different for social entrepreneurs or is it just an acute case of founder syndrome? Are they the right people to implement and scale up an organization? At a breakout session on the subject of succession planning at the Schwab Summit, people referred to the need to ‘move from a leadership to an administration model’.[1] Alliance talked to social entrepreneurs Jeroo Billimoria and Mel Young to find out their views.

Both agreed: if it’s just an acute case of founder syndrome, then it’s a very acute case because of the sort of individuals social entrepreneurs are. Both described themselves as ‘serial social entrepreneurs’: what they’re good at is having new ideas and the vision and enthusiasm to put them into practice, founding an organization, doing what it takes to get things off the ground. What they’re not good at – and are frankly bored by – is long-term running of the organization founded. They want to get on and start something else.

And how does this picture apply to people who found organizations and lead them for a very long time, like Fazle Abed of BRAC or Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank? According to Young, if they do this, either they’re no longer social entrepreneurs or the truth is they’re innovating all the time, starting up new things within the organization (as they clearly are) – ‘in which case they’re still in effect serial social entrepreneurs, but within the structure of one organization’.

When should the founder move on?

If they leave too soon, is there a danger the organization will lose vision, motivation, entrepreneurial character?

Mel Young confessed it was something he’d not really thought about before the breakout session. This had really set him thinking and made him realize he should be moving on. In general, it’s not a subject people talk about or write about much.

Jeroo Billimoria, by contrast, has clearly thought about it a lot. Personal circumstances (leaving India) necessitated her leaving Childline India in 2003. She says this was ‘a bit premature’, in fact about six months early: she had planned to stay for seven years, but in the event had stayed only six and a half. Luckily, she says, she left a strong team in place and the organization is now prospering – proof that organizations can continue to grow after the founder has moved on.

In her present job, as director of Child Helpline International (CHI), started just a year ago, she has already made plans for leaving in two years’ time. ‘I think this is something you need to plan for. At CHI we built it in right from the beginning, and I convinced my board this was what should happen.’ The idea is to build a strong senior management team of perhaps five to seven people, from which the right person to take over from Billimoria as director will eventually ‘emerge’. The team already contains at least one possible successor, and they are actively looking for one or two more now. Building this sort of institutional structure rather than a person-dependent structure should ensure that the organization doesn’t suffer when the founder moves on. Joe Hadiath of Gram Vikas, India (see p34) is working to an even longer timetable: he’s set to retire in 2010, two programme cycles on. His bottom line is that they need someone ‘who cares about rural India’.

How do you find the right successor?

Should the successor come from inside the organization? In the breakout session, several speakers expressed the view that it’s difficult to bring in a new leader from outside, someone who has no insight into the organization or history with it. An alternative viewpoint, however, was that finding successors is no more difficult than it is in other sectors. ‘Everyone is unique and magic – we can’t replace like with like.’

Billimoria agrees that it’s wise to have the new leader come from inside the organization. ‘By the time the new person takes over from me, he/she should really have taken on our values and our vision.’ Rebecca Adamson (First Nations Development Institute, USA) has made a similar arrangement. She’s moving on after 25 years, retiring at the end of 2005, but her successor has already been appointed – they needed an indigenous person with venture capital experience so it took some time to find the right person.

If you can’t find a new leader inside the organization, or can’t afford to have this long-drawn-out induction process, then how do you embody the founder’s values in the structure of the organization? How do you ensure it remains entrepreneurial? ‘There’s a limit to what you can do,’ says Young. ‘In the end, you have to move on and hope the organization carries on OK without you. But this is clearly a situation few social entrepreneurs feel happy with.’

What about family succession?

Another option, of course, is to have someone in the family take over the leadership when the founder steps down. What view you take on this seems to be partly a matter of culture. Mel Young didn’t like the idea. In the UK, ‘nepotism’ tends to be frowned on and open advertising is generally regarded as the best way to find the best person for the job – though handing over to a family member is not uncommon among family-owned private enterprises.

Jeroo Billimoria, on the other hand, feels that it’s legitimate for a social enterprise to be a family enterprise.[2] It’s not just that it’s culturally acceptable in India: ‘in rural India,’ she says, ‘it’s likely to be very difficult to find a successor and there may be no other realistic choice.’ But, she adds, if you take institution-building seriously, family succession shouldn’t generally be needed.

Finding another role in the organization

What about the founder finding another role in the organization? If they stay on, will they stand in the way of progress? Should the departing leader stay on the board?

One option is to split the leadership into two, with a Chief Operations Officer to take on the day-to-day running of the organization while the founder carries on as the public face, forging relationships, ensuring the legacy, etc. Will this work, or, as Nic Frances (Easy Being Green) suggested in the breakout session, does the founder just need to move on and say goodbye and let the new person get on with the job, accepting that the organization may fail?

‘Splitting the job sounds like a sensible idea,’ says Young, ‘but I know I couldn’t keep my nose out of things. I’d walk past someone and see them doing something in what didn’t seem to me to be the best way and I wouldn’t be able to stop myself telling them how I thought it could be done better. I take more Nic’s view – you have to move on and let the new person get on with the job in their own way.’

Billimoria feels that in general ‘the founder staying on the board is a good option, and shouldn’t involve this sort of overlap of responsibilities and getting in the way’. As far as CHI is concerned, she says she will be ‘happy to continue to be associated with CHI in whatever way is best for the organization’.

How it works out in practice

Mel Young was soon to put his views into effect. On 31 December, he left Big Issue in Scotland, the organization he founded eleven and a half years ago. ‘I had thought about it before,’ he says, ‘but the discussion in Campinas was a defining moment. I was listening to other social entrepreneurs who were experiencing similar situations, my peers, and the penny dropped – this was what I needed to do, both for myself and for the organization. It became crystal clear at Campinas what I was – a serial social entrepreneur. My strength is getting things going. What I was doing was keeping on starting things and then finding it difficult to let go of any of them. “Why should I give up my baby?” I asked myself. It was emotionally very difficult to leave, but once the decision was made, I knew it was the right decision. In fact I should probably have left a couple of years ago.’

He feels it was a good decision for Big Issue in Scotland too. He was already involved in new projects and wasn’t fully focused on his work there. In any case, there were staff who’d been with the organization for some time who were ready to take more control.

And his successor? She took over at the beginning of January, and all seems to be going well. She had already been working for Big Issue in Scotland for a while so ‘understands the values and the vision really well’, which Young sees as ‘critical’. In fact, he says, underlining the general feeling from the Summit breakout discussion, ‘she probably had to come from within the organization’.

True to his doubts, Young hasn’t taken a seat on the board. He needs to make a complete break, he says, and ‘not find out too much about how things are going’. If he does, he knows he will become too involved: ‘I can’t help myself!’[3]

1 In the ‘leadership phase’, the organization is driven forward by the vision and enthusiasm of the founder. At a certain point, effective and efficient long-term running of the organization founded becomes the priority – the ‘administration model’.

2 Mechai Viravaidya, for example, founder of Thailand’s Population and Community Development Association (PDA), plans to have his daughter take over from him.

3 Now he has left Big Issue in Scotland, Young is free to concentrate on his two latest projects – ProPoor Sports and the Fair Trade magazine New Consumer. ProPoor Sports grew out of the International Network of Street Newspapers and its ‘Homeless World Cup’; it focuses on sport as a way to combat exclusion. Young remains President of INSP, a non-executive, voluntary position.

Jeroo Billimoria is director of the Child Helpline International Foundation, based in the Netherlands, a global network of telephone helplines for children in 60 countries. She is also founder of Childline India. She can be contacted at

Mel Young is President of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), based in the UK. INSP is a network of street papers with a combined global annual circulation of 30 million. He is also founder of Big Issue in Scotland. He can be contacted at

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