Prepare, Pivot & Thrive - Succession, Strategy, Sustainability & Search


Daring To Lead Actions


 Actions you can take to increase leader effectiveness and organizational impact.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, TransitionGuides president, Tom Adams, highlights a disconnect between a widely held belief that there’s a link between leadership and organizational effectiveness, and the nonprofit sector’s support for leadership development and succession. Drawing on the Daring to Lead 2011 report, the third iteration of this national study, Adams points to the underinvestment in leadership – lack of attention to succession planning, performance management, nurturing the CEO-Board relationships, and support for new chief executives.  This underinvestment represents a disconnect with the belief in the leadership effectiveness-organizational results connection.  In short, if we care about organizational impact and believe in the leadership-organizational effectiveness link, as a sector, we should be paying closer attention to leadership support, growth and development.

Investment in leadership support, growth and development requires more than an investment of dollars.  The biggest need is a shift in behavior – taking actions, investing time and attention in leadership. Here are some simple things that boards, executives and foundation leaders can do:

1. Pay greater attention to executive succession.  Succession planning not only provides a roadmap to manage executive turnover, especially chief executives, it also increases the succession competency of board and staff teams.  Begin with an honest acknowledgement that every career ends in a transition. Succession planning allows us to look at what actions are needed to strengthen the organization:  its business model and business strategy; its leadership – both board and staff; its resource base; and finally its culture.  It can also provide guidance on how to deal with unexpected absences.  Here are some links to succession planning resources:

a. The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide, by Tom Adams See Chapters 6 & 7

b. Stepping Up, Staying Engaged: Succession Planning and Executive Transition Management for Nonprofit Boards of Directors

c. Building Leaderful Organizations 

d. Raffa Succession Planning Services

e. Raffa Succession Policy Template

f. Raffa Succession Planning Template

2. Manage executive transitions. Executive transition management is a proven three-stage process for managing chief executive turnover. The process encourages the board to take the time to assess and understand the organization’s current and future leadership needs as well as the legacy and other issues that will affect the success of the transition.  Here are some links to executive transition management resources:

a. Executive Transition Management Resources

b. Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire and Support a Nonprofit CEO, by Don Tebbe

c. Founder Transitions: Creating Good Endings and New Beginnings

d. Capturing the Power of Leadership Change: Using Executive Transition  Management to Strengthen Organizational Capacity

e. Raffa  Executive Transition Management Services

3. Invest in your future leaders. Unfortunately, too many nonprofits are “talent miners” rather than talent developers. Their approach is to go mining for talent nuggets that have been developed elsewhere. When we nurture the growth and development of the people working for us, we strengthen the leadership-organizational effectiveness link, as well as develop a pipeline of leaders who understand our organization and its culture at a deep level. Moreover, as the labor market contracts with the baby boomers retiring, talent mining is going to become much harder.   In nearly every community, you can access rich resources to assist you in developing your people, everything from formal nonprofit degree programs to one-day trainings offered by your local management support organization or United Way. Here are some links to leader development: 

a. BoardSource Assess to Advance a CEO performance evaluation tool

b. TransitionGuides article on leadership agenda and Board-Executive Social Contract

c. Talent management

d. Leader development

e. Leader development

f. The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide, by Tom Adams See Chapter 8

Overview of Talent Management

Leader development,succession planning and executive transition management are vital elements of an overall talent management system or approach. Talent Managment links organizational goals and organizational performance through strategic management of human resources.

Talent Management Graphic

4. Invest in the diversity of your leadership. The racial and ethnic diversity of your community can influence the leader development agenda. Many organizations – the  Denver Foundation, Third Sector New England, the Council of Michigan Foundations, and the Baltimore-Washington Racial Diversity Collaborative, among others – offer concrete ways to include attention to changing demographics and community cultures in an effective leader development agenda. The high-performing organization sustains success by a growing a pool of diverse, creative leaders who are attentive to the shifting needs of their constituents. Here are some links to sources on diversity in leadership development:

a. Racial and Equity Institute

b. The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide, by Tom Adams See Chapter 4 on racial and generational diversity.

5. Provide better support for new executives. The first 90-100 days are the most critical in a new job, and the first year can be the most critical time in a new career. Unfortunately, too many boards, in their behavior, assume a sink-or-swim stance with their new executive. Or they assume that, once the search is complete, it’s back to business as usual.  Neither of these approaches is particularly effective, especially considering that two thirds of new nonprofit chief executives are new to that role.  Boards that understand that they must “co-create” a relationship with their new executive and those that understand the well-researched stages that executives move through in their new role, are not only getting better outcomes, they’re actually living up to the key element of their fiduciary role. Here are some links to executive support and onboarding:

a. Raffa Post-Hire Stage Resources.

b. Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire and Support a Nonprofit CEO, by Don Tebbe

c. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, by Michael Watkins

d. Onboarding: How to Get Your New Employees Up to Speed in Half the Time by George Bradt

6. Better understand the leadership effectiveness-organizational results link. Begin with asking yourself and your leadership team the fundamental question:  As a leader, do you truly believe there is a direct relationship between effective leadership and organizational impact?  If your answer is yes, you must invest in retaining the wisdom of departing leaders even as you invest in the development of the next cadre. Here are some steps to advance the conversation:

a. Read Daring to Lead 2011, and consider the implications for your organization.

b. Engage your managers, staff, and board in this same discussion.

c. Choose among actions and investments you might make and get to work.





Guarantee Leadership for the Future


Chronicle Logo


June 26, 2011

Nonprofits Should Take Steps Now to Guarantee Leadership for the Future

By Tom Adams

During the worst economic times ever faced by the vast majority of nonprofits in the United States, we have witnessed remarkably effective management by the talented and dedicated men and women who serve as executives and board leaders.

Their commitment to survival and growth is one of the key points that comes across in “Daring to Lead,” the new report released by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation.

But the survey, based on data from 3,000 leaders, also exposes a challenge facing the nonprofit world: sustained neglect of the building blocks of high performance. We are failing to plan for leadership succession, to invest in executive performance management, to develop leaders, and to attend to the relationships between board and executives.

Attention to these deficits is critical—especially at this time. A big share of nonprofit leaders is reaching retirement age. And younger leaders aren’t getting the nurturing they need to gain all the necessary skills to take over.

Devoid of attention, this combination will rob the nonprofit world of decades of experience and wisdom and leave us unprepared for the future. Despite the continued economic slump, grant makers and nonprofit leaders alike must do all we can to deal with this problem.

Charities have countless ways to deal with these challenges, but first nonprofit leaders must ask themselves this: Is there a direct relationship between effective leadership and organizational impact?

Not everybody in the nonprofit world does.

Nonprofit leaders need to think really hard about whether they believe their effectiveness as leaders affects their organization’s results. Foundation executives need to ask two questions—not just about whether their effectiveness affects the foundation’s results but also about whether their grantees’ leadership affects the foundation’s results.

If you don’t buy the premise, talk with leaders of high-performing businesses, government agencies, or other nonprofits. I believe you’ll find the evidence is unequivocal, but you must decide for yourself.

If you do believe the answer is yes, then it’s time to talk about this issue in frank conversations with managers, staff members, and board members.

Everyone must be urged to think about their answers to the question: Does individual and collective effectiveness matter—and what actions and investment of time and money will increase our results?



Transition Success Factors


 Excerpted from an article by Tom Adams as published in Nonprofit World • Volume 16, Number 3 May/June 1998

Executive transition is a powerful milestone for an organization and a predictor of its future effectiveness. Careers of departing and arriving executives and reputations of board leaders are directly affected by the outcomes of transition. Whether or not you’re currently involved with an executive transition, this article will help you manage one of the most difficult and unavoidable aspects of nonprofit life.

What follows are lessons and practical tips for executives and boards based on a five-year field research project of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. and experienced in applying these lessons in over 200 executive leadership transitions.

Neighborhood Reinvestment has developed a systematic three-phase approach to executive transition that increases the likelihood of success. Here are lessons learned from this project:

1. Take time to clarify how the transition can benefit the organization.

For a host of financial, programmatic and emotional reasons there is enormous pressure to move quickly to place an ad and begin recruiting. No matter how experienced the leadership, this tendency is almost unavoidable. Tom Gilmore, author of Making a Leadership Change, describes the rash and unconscious decision-making that occurs during transition as “sleep-walking through the process.”[1] The odds of a successful transition are improved when an organization faces this pressure, addresses the legitimate issues that warrant immediate action, and then carefully reflects on how the organization can benefit most from this time of change.

2. Don’t skimp on any phase of the transition.

There are three phases to the executive transition process: getting ready, recruiting, and post-hiring. Each phase builds on the preceding one. Skimping on any phase puts the success of the transition at risk. (See the chart below for key considerations and potential obstacles in each phase.)

Be careful that the recruiting phase doesn’t absorb the board’s attention to the detriment of the pre-hiring and post-hiring phases. If the pre-hiring phase is slighted, you may end up with the wrong person. If the board doesn’t reserve energy for the post-hiring phase, they’ll get off on the wrong foot with the new executive. Exhausted board members who disappear after selection run the risk of a weak executive-board relationship and too little accountability. Devoting time and energy to all three phases is critical to long-term success.

3. Identify what type of transition it is.

The type of transition influences the costs, risks, and transition strategy, as well as the attributes of the next executive. First, you need to clarify whether the transition is routine or non-routine.  Routine transitions occur when an executive retires or takes another position and a stable organization goes through an orderly process of hiring a new executive. Neighborhood Reinvestment’s field experience and research, validated by executive search professionals, suggests that most transitions today are non-routine and complex. In Neighborhood Reinvestment’s experience, the four most typical transitions today are:

Turnaround transitions. If your organization is in a financial or programmatic crisis, or there is a recognized need to reorganize board or staff, you are facing a turnaround transition. Such a transition requires one or more lead supporters willing to invest in an interim manager, a consultant, and a permanent executive experienced in managing turnarounds. Turnarounds are especially difficult, costly, and high-risk for first-time executives. But even proven executives can be overwhelmed by the challenges of a turnaround unless they have extensive organizational assessment experience.

Organizational startups. When an organization hires an executive for the first time, big shifts occur. The hiring may be part of the organization’s formation, or the new exec may be hired after relying on volunteer or part-time “staffing” for months or years. In either case, founders and volunteers must make major adjustments. Letting go and shifting roles can be painful, and reshaping the organization’s culture is disruptive. Executives of start-ups also face intense demands. They are often shocked by the number of questions and details handed to them for resolution. Because an organization’s beginning has such a great effect on its future, hiring the first exec demands the involvement of people experienced with start-ups.

Underperforming organizations. Many symptoms point to underperformance. Although such thoughts are often unspoken at first, board members and funders begin to wonder if the organization is doing” enough. Sometimes a personable executive is able to raise operating support but provides limited services or products year after year. Underperforming organizations frequently turn out to be in crisis when light is shed on them. Many of the same skills required for a turnaround or start-up are required from the new executive in this situation.

Founder/entrepreneur successions. When a founder leaves, the organization faces major adjustment. Its culture, performance expectations, and relationships are linked to the founder and personality. Even stable organizations can quickly become vulnerable without careful attention to the impact of this change. Similarly, departing executives who built or rebuilt an organization through their entrepreneurial drive, vision, and energy are difficult to follow. Boards often fail to adjust expectations, resulting in rocky starts and short tenures. Rather than rushing to fill the void left by the founder or entrepreneur, it’s sometimes better to hire an interim manager. Using short-term leadership can offset the distorted perspectives that are common when such a powerful leader leaves.[2]

4. Assess your organization’s health, needs, and resources, and sharpen its mission, vision, and goals.

Search firms refer to this process as scoping—turning a lens to examine and understand the organization’s history, current condition, and future needs. When thoughtfully done, this assessment provides a clear picture of what the next exec should be like, what compensation package will attract such a person, and what issues need attention before hiring the new exec. This snapshot also provides a basis for the board to map out its transition route, evaluate the expertise it has available, and identify where outside assistance is needed.

5. Take extra time to recruit a pool of finalists that is diverse in gender and ethnicity.

Many organizations, especially those in multi-ethnic communities, seek to insure that finalists represent the diversity of the communities served. An organization’s ability to recruit a diverse pool of finalists is increased if the board and its leadership are diverse. Given the competitiveness for talent and the shortage of experienced executives in some communities, added time and outreach are often needed to identify and attract a diverse pool.

6. Offer a competitive compensation package, including an employer-contributed retirement benefit.

Don’t advertise a salary too low to attract people with the needed skills. It's better to remain flexible about salary until you’ve met potential candidates and know their current salaries and needs. Funders may be willing to supplement salaries with grants to help you hire a more experienced executive.

It’s increasingly important to offer benefits, including an employer-contributed retirement plan. A 1993 national benefit survey points to a retirement benefit as more important than salary among Neighborhood Reinvestment affiliates. Organizations that offered an employer-contributed retirement benefit had executive tenures twice as long as those that didn’t.

7. Consider outside assistance.

Initially, many board members don’t see much difference between hiring a new executive and hiring any new employee. Such a view underestimates the complexity of the process. Involving a person with a proven track record in selecting nonprofit executives is a tremendous advantage.

For larger, more established nonprofits with clear mission niches, search firms that focus on nonprofits (preferably in their mission area) can be particularly helpful. Community-based nonprofits, smaller organizations, and nonprofits with emerging mission areas tend to benefit from working with independent consultants experienced in one or more phases of the transition.

Most boards find outside assistance valuable in assessing their readiness to recruit, in doing candidate outreach and reference checks, and in facilitating the initial relationship-building and performance reviews with the new executive. New executives find enormous benefit in working with an executive coach or management consultant during the stress-filled first year.


[1] Thomas N. Gilmore, Making a Leadership Change: How Organizations and Leaders can Handle Leadership Transitions Successfully. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988.

[2] See Interim and Acting Directors: The Case far Short-term Leadership, by Catherine W. Farquhar, Management and Information Exchange, July 1983.

Selected References

Adams, Tom. “Demystifying Executive Leadership Changes,” Stone Soup, Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, Spring 1997.

Brinkerhoff, Peter. “How to Choose and Work with a Consultant,”  Nonprofit World, March-April 1992.

Farquhar, Katherine W. et al., “Special Issue on Leadership Transitions,” Human Resource Management, Spring 1995

Fram, Eugene & Robert Pearse, “Custom Design Your New Exec’s Orientation Program,” Nonprofit World, January-February 1991.

Fram, Eugene & Robert Pearse, “The Effective Executive Takes Over,” Nonprofit World, May 1991.

Nathan, Maria L, “The Nonprofit Executive as Chief Learning Officer,” Nonprofit World, March-April 1998.

National Center for Nonprofit Boards, “Crisis or Opportunity? Executive Leadership Transitions,” Board Member, Special Edition, May 1997.

Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, Managing Executive Transitions: A Handbook for Nonprofit Boards Hiring Executive Directors, 1994; revised for Winter 1997.




Introduction to Executive Transition - Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning


In any given year, about one out of ten nonprofit boards will face the challenge of searching for a new executive director. That number is projected to climb by 15 percent or more as the bulk of the baby-boomer generation begins to reach retirement age.

Under the best circumstances, replacing an executive director is a time-consuming and risky endeavor. The top leadership role in an organization in today's environment is exceedingly complex. Too often these transitions happen unexpectedly, leaving the organization and board scrambling.

Properly managed, a leadership transition provides a pivotal moment, enabling an organization to change direction, maintain momentum, and strengthen its capacity. This overview provides background on the need for executive transition services, outlines of the process involved and summarizes the research findings and lessons gained from direct experience of over several hundred executive transitions.

Whether you’re currently involved with an executive transition, beginning to think about leadership succession, or if you are a funder or consultant interested in this topic, the material that follows will help you understand, prepare for and manage one of the most difficult and unavoidable aspects of nonprofit life... and manage it in a way that sustains and builds organizational capacity and effectiveness.

Executive Transition Programs and their Roots

There is a growing field of organizations and consultants providing executive transition services to nonprofits.  The roots of these programs are long and many.  Influences include: Tom Gilmore's writings on executive transitions, William Bridges' distinction between change and transition, and the pastoral transition and interim ministry movement begun by the Alban Institute in the 1970s and continued by the Interim Ministry Network.

The nonprofit programmatic history includes the groundbreaking work of TransitionGuides' President, Tom Adams, starting in the early-90s while he was at the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation in a project funded by the Kellogg Foundation, and later with programs at the Maryland Association of Nonprofits and Annie E. Casey Foundation. Don Tebbe, TranstionGuides Executive Vice President's work starting in 1995 to re-engineer executive search, followed by research on the "board-executive social contract" and applying the lessons of interim ministry to the role of the interim executive director.  Tim Wolfred at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services developed transition services in the late-90s and has contributed to the field through a rich body of research work as well as training for executive transition and succession planning practitioners. TransitionGuides and CompassPoint collaborated, with support of the of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in the early 2000's to develop best practice approaches to executive transition management and succession planning.

The body of literature about nonprofit chief executive transition and succession continues to grow with publication of a series of monographs on executive transition management funded in part by the Casey Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, followed by publication in 2008 of Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire and Support a Nonprofit CEO, authored by Don Tebbe and published by BoardSource (winner of the 2009 Terry McAdam Book Award), TIm Wolfred's Managing Executive Transitions: A Guide for Nonprofits, published by Fieldstone Alliance in 2009, and The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide: Proven Paths for Leaders and Organizations by Tom Adams and published by Jossey-Bass in 2010. There has also has been a number of articles published by the Nonprofit Quarterly, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Public Manager, Chronicle of Philanthropy, and others.

Click here for information about about TransitionGuides services.


Transition Guide for Executive Directors - Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning


What an exciting and challenging job! It's hard to imagine anything more fulfilling than successfully leading an organization committed to an important public purpose. Our communities and the people and institutions we serve rely on your leadership to add value, hope and opportunity.

At the same time, being an executive director can be lonely, frustrating and, in some circumstances, a miserable experience. Our work and research point to three keys to success for executives:

1. Crefully picking the right organization to lead and getting started well;
2. Partnering with your board and staff around a clear mission, strategy, and business plan; and
3. Knowing when and how to prepare the organization for your departure and leaving gracefully.

Thriving, well-led organizations and their executives are self-reflective, keep an eye on where they are in their organizational life cycle and development, and use internal and external resources well.

If you are an executive director who is planning his/her departure, we suggest reviewing the Executive Transition Overview, especially the Transition Tips for Departing Executives. We also have a piece for founders and successors.

If your are a founder, please see the Founder article in this section as well as Founder Case Studies and the Founder Transition Lessons.

If you have just been hired as an executive director, you may find our Tips for Arriving Executives to be useful.


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    BIG NEWS...
    TransitionGuides has transitioned! 



As of January 2, 2014, we have joined Raffa PC

CLICK HERE to see what Raffa PC has to offer!

 This change allows us to continue to offer and further develop our search, sustainability, succession, and transition services and to offer a broader range of services. Our team, our work, and our commitment to outstanding service remain the same. For more information contact Karen Schuler regarding CEO and Senior Executive Search ( and Tom Adams regarding Sustainability, Succession & Transition Planning Services ( For now you can continue to access the TransitionGuides website at

Please visit the Raffa website at  to learn about the comprehensive services and benefits offered to the nonprofit community.

From the practical back office solutions that keep organizations compliant, effective and efficient to the deeper strategies that create sustainability, Raffa provides the financial and management expertise as well as accounting, consulting, and technology services that help organizations deliver on their promise to the community. Experience the Raffa culture of corporate citizenship and community commitment, and learn how passion for professional excellence and for making a difference merge for the better good.
While you are there, sign up for the Raffa newsletter to receive our timely articles and learn about the firm’s free Learning Community events.

 From the practical back office solutions that keep organizations compliant, effective and efficient to the deeper strategies that create sustainability, Raffa provides the financial and management expertise as well as accounting, consulting, and technology services that help organizations deliver on their promise to the community. Experience the Raffa culture of corporate citizenship and community commitment, and learn how passion for professional excellence and for making a difference merge for the better good.  

While you are there, sign up for the Raffa newsletter to receive our timely articles and learn about the firm’s free Learning Community events.