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.

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