Entrances, Exits, And Passwords

Photo by Neeta Lind

There’s nothing like a power outage to make you wonder about all the things you take for granted, such as those reams of data your seemingly small but very active NPO generates every day through email campaigns, the Facebook and Twitter feeds, and  blog. On top of that are all your internal communications like documents, manuals, sensitive and/or CYA emails, and lists of every sort.

If your organization’s mission and daily work can wait until the power’s back, then feel free to skip this post.

But if you work with advocacy, humanitarian issues, social and global justice issues, conflict resolution, first response, or breaking news—a description that likely covers a huge number of you reading this blog, particularly if you’re in and around non-profit central a.k.a. Washington DC—then stay with me.

Furthermore, if the summer slowdown is when your office tends to research and plan the fall campaign, see staff/intern turnover with people going back to school, or write end-of-funding reports, definitely read on! Now’s the time you need to assess your transition documents, your “hit by a bus” (or derecho) plan.

Creating the Backup Plan

We have all gotten better about storing our stuff. Twenty years of email, and many a run-in with virus or hard drive crash has finally made us collectively pay attention to the care, feeding, and routine back-up of our data. Chances are you’ve got yours all backed up on the cloud as well as external hard drives.* But a lot of organizations—across the board in terms of size and budget—don’t think about transitions and transition documents quite as routinely or thoroughly.

Transitions aren’t routinized partly because they don’t happen as often as software updates. And partly, because we take on faith that an outgoing staffer will have all the passwords written down somewhere, and will hand over the information to whoever’s next. This is especially true in small NPOs with few paid staff. And for the most part, that works. Except when it doesn’t. Which is when you risk highly preventable, entirely man-made work slowdown or worse, chaos.

The questions to ask are:

  1. What does the organization need to continue with minimum disruption to mission if there’s a sudden exit or absence? What key passwords need to be readily available?
  2. Who needs the keys to which kingdom, and in what order?
  3. What should be automated or routinized with a staff member’s arrival or exit so things don’t disappear into the electronic ether?

At a minimum there should be a recap document with login, password, and billing information for your website, social media, company banking information, cloud access and so forth. And it should be updated routinely, and the second anything changes.

Yes, this seems like yet another chore to add to the ever-growing list of things that need to be done as an organization grows. But it beats waiting for HootSuite’s tech support to remove the long since departed founding team member from a locked account. It’s definitely necessary to keep everything from coming to a grinding halt because one key staffer left, quit, or was fired on unpleasant terms. And you definitely don’t want to find out the hard way that your URL’s pointing to a GoDaddy placeholder because your webmaster left, along with the credit card the domain registration used to automatically bill to! (Oh, it happens.)

And then there are transition documents. When staff wear multiple hats, a unified transition document forces you to take stock of how many projects there are, who is doing what, and how things are progressing. It’s also a good way to force some perspective and help everyone recognize just how much work there is. Yes, a lot of transition documents don’t ever get read, because new people in new positions simply start over. But the existence of one keeps your successor from having to reinvent the wheel. Also, ahem, it allows you to be D-O-N-E when you’re gone (if you so wish).

I’ll never forget writing a transition document when I finally quit a job some years ago. I started as the fourth employee and teleworked in yoga pants. I left four and a half years later as director of communications with a spare suit always hanging in the very nice office. I was astonished at my own transition document: 13 pages, packed with information, and a satisfying list of things started, finished, or in progress. I’d done a lot more than I realized, and whoever came next was in a good position to keep things going.

Thirteen pages for four and a half years.

How much more institutional knowledge do you have? How easily could you hand things off if necessary? And what information will you put in your transition document?

(Hard drives would have been very handy over the weekend. Exhibit A: The number of people who simply couldn’t get to their cloud, or Amazon, or Pinterest, or Facebook – nationwide – for well over a day during “swelter in place.” And, in some cases, are still nursing a day-long cup while using the local coffee shop’s free wi-fi. May they all have power soon!)