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


Transition Tips for Departing Executives - Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning


Once you announce your intent to leave, relationships and roles shift immediately. You can help yourself and the organization best if you:

  • Provide the board with a clear picture of what must be done during the interim period.
  • Shift your priorities to short-term actions that you and the board agree will strengthen the organization before your departure.
  • Encourage the board to appoint a transition committee and get ready to recruit.
  • Avoid hasty recommendations. Encourage the board to undertake a thorough “getting ready” assessment and let the assessment drive the interim strategy.
  • Avoid (in most cases) being actively involved in selecting your successor. Discuss your appropriate role with the board and transition committee.
  • Encourage the board to get outside help rather than rely on you, especially if you are a founder.
  • Accept that you may have a lot of mixed feelings, and talk about them with a mentor or colleague.
  • Celebrate your relationships and accomplishments, say goodbye in ways appropriate for you, and be direct if there are ways you would or wouldn’t like to celebrate your years at the organization.

For more ideas and tips for founders, see the Founding Executives page in the Executive Directors section.


Transition Tips for Arriving Executives - Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning


Things often aren’t as they appear. There may be some surprises - about resources, staff, commitments, board dynamics, and relationships. Your biggest challenge in the first months is making relationship building a priority while addressing whatever critical organizational issues need attention. This is your time to get to know the organization and build the relationships you need to succeed. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

  • Before you start the job (or in your first week), ask to see the bylaws, current financial statements, board roster and minutes, staff roster and resumes, previous two years’ audits, and a summary of contractual obligations and funding commitments.
  • Clarify the board’s expectations of results.
  • Make meeting with staff, board, and key stakeholders a priority. Ask for their guidance on people to meet and their assistance in making introductions.
  • Ask the board for a written work plan of your priorities for the first three months. Initiate a process of written work plans for the board to use in evaluating your performance.
  • Insist on a three-month informal check-in and a six-month review of your performance. Ask for feedback on an ongoing basis.
  • Build an effective executive-board relationship as if your job depends on it. It does!
  • Work to create a safe place for yourself and others to learn. Admit what you don’t know, and ask for support for your orientation and professional development needs.
  • Find a mentor with no agenda other than to help you process what’s going on and succeed at your new job.


Five Developmental Tasks for the Interim Period


One of the most overlooked opportunities in executive transitions is how to make the most of the interim period, which is the time between the departure of the incumbent and when the new executive starts.  Often boards think of this time as a problem and rush to find someone to “bridge the gap.”

Providing stable management for an organization when it is without a permanent executive is certainly a crucial role, but so much more is possible.  A well-trained “intentional interim” can help institute changes that help turn around an organization in crisis.  In stable organizations they can provide an important respite between a founder or other “big shoes” leader and his/her successor.  This “interim time” is often essential for the organization to come to terms with its history; address any latent issues; and for the staff, board members, and volunteers to deal with their own sense of grief and loss in order to be ready to embrace a new leader.

The crucial task of the intentional interim director is to ensure there is a solid platform for the new executive.  Over two decades ago, Loren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute, recognized the challenge of pastoral transitions and began to develop the “Five Development Tasks for Interim Ministry.”1 These developmental tasks offer a proven framework for stabilizing and moving an organization forward during the interim period. We have adapted those tasks here for a non-church setting:2

1.     Coming to terms with history. One of the fundamental tasks of the interim is to help the Board take an unvarnished look at the organization—its past, its strengths, its weaknesses, its shortcomings, and its accomplishments.  In transitions involving an organization in crisis, especially when a termination is involved, there is often a tendency to magnify the shortcomings of the former leader while ignoring some of the underlying organizational issues that helped precipitate the crisis—issues which may have predated the “failed” executive’s hiring and probably still persist after he/she has left. The board can’t hope to have a “solid platform” for the new executive if the foundation is made wobbly by unresolved underlying problems. Coming to terms with history means ferreting out and addressing those problems as well as recognizing and truly appreciating the organization’s strengths and accomplishments.  In a crisis situation, there’s a need to come to terms—very quickly—with the factors that precipitated the crisis.

2.     Exploring identity and direction. An executive transition is a unique moment to shape the future of the organization unconstrained by the limitations of the executive’s leadership capacity and capabilities.  Faced with replacing their executive, boards typically turn first to the departing executive’s job description. That should be the last reference point for launching a search; at best, the old job description describes the leadership role of the organization of the past, not of the future.  Instead, the board should be looking forward, exploring the organization that they aspire to create and then shaping the job (and job description) around the present and future leadership needs of the organization.

3.     Making leadership/operational changes. Quite often, a change in executives will spotlight other needed changes—in leadership, staffing, systems or structure. These changes can come in many forms: a board that realizes that its size is unwieldy and downsizes, a disruptive board member is encouraged to move on, an organization overhauls its underpowered financial system, etc.  An extreme example in the news is a local United Way that faced a post-crisis loss of confidence.  It replaced its entire board because the old board was too closely tied to the crisis. One of the tensions that the interim director faces is making or encouraging the necessary changes while minimizing the disruption to the organization.  The true test of any change is whether it will advance the organization without undue disruption. Filling key staff vacancies presents another tension. Generally interims try to balance effective staffing during the interim with the need to preserve the latitude of the incoming executive to build his or her own team.

4.     Renewing linkages. Over time, especially in crisis situations, key stakeholders and supporters may become disengaged.  One of the “platform building” tasks can be to bring some of them back into the fold.  For example, a membership organization may have drifted off mission and lost members as a result. Having come to terms with history and refocused on its mission, it now has a case and a new message to begin the process of recovering its fallen-away members.

5.     Committing to new leadership and a new direction. The final step of the interim process is making a commitment to the new executive and the new direction. At this point the organization should have a healthy perspective on its history, have worked during the interim period to build a solid platform for the new executive, and have a clear sense of the organization direction and priorities that it is laying out before the new executive.  In short, it should be prepared to launch and support its new staff leader.

Click here for more information about our work to train, place and support interim executive directors or call us at (301) 439-6635.

1For a recent iteration, see: Mead, Loren B. Critical Moment of Ministry: A Change of Pastors, Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1986.  The Alban Institute offers an array of publications and workshops for congregations in transition.

2The Interim Ministry Network offers a two-week training program for intentional interim ministers.  More information can be found at their web site:


Why Focus on Executive Transitions - What’s at Stake? - Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning


Preliminary research estimates that 10% of nonprofit CEO jobs turnover each year.  Though they happen infrequently to individual organizations, leadership transitions are becoming increasingly common in the nonprofit sector.  A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 85% of executives will likely leave their positions during the next seven years.  Similar surveys suggest that in the next five to seven years, the rate of transitions is likely to climb by 15 percent or more as the baby-boomer generation--many of whom founded core organizations in their communities 20 and 30 years ago--begin to reach retirement age.*

Effective leadership is a crucial ingredient for successful organizations.  It's not surprising then that executive leadership transitions are fraught with risk. It is a particularly challenging time for small- and medium-sized nonprofit organizations where the executive director wears multiple hats, playing several hands-on roles in the daily operations and/or service delivery.  Sorting out and prioritizing those roles (and addressing them during the interim) can be especially challenging.

The costs of a failed leadership transition--or one that results in a poor or strained fit between an executive and his/her board--occur on multiple levels.  There are the direct costs of conducting a search for a new leader, which can range up to tens of thousands of dollars, including advertising, executive search, relocation and other expenses.  There are also hundreds of volunteer hours spent by the board of directors (estimates range from 500 to 1,000 volunteer hours). Then there are the indirect costs, which can include increased staff and Board turnover, missed opportunities for program growth, or loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars of client services due to program shrinkage or closure.  In the worst cases, a mission critical organization goes out of business.  The community loses an essential service institution, and in some cases, a broad-scale systems reform effort may be derailed.


*Dohm, A. (July 2000).  “Gauging the labor force effects of retiring baby-boomers.”  Monthly Labor Review.


Executive Transition vs. Executive Search, What's the Difference? - Nonprofit Search, Succession, and Planning


Executive transition is the period that begins with the executive’s decision to depart (or the Board’s decision to terminate) and extends through the hiring and successful completion of the six-month evaluation of the new executive.  Executive transition management is the management of the entire departure-recruitment-installation process in a holistic fashion.  Executive transition is not just about finding an executive who fits the current and future demands of the job (although it does that, too), but also focuses on minimizing the risk and capturing all of the opportunities that a change in leaders offers.  In addition, the executive transition management process includes:

  • Helping the organization better understand its history, present situation and future prospects as it relates to the selection of a new leader;
  • Identifying and addressing any legacy issues that might hinder the success of the incoming leader;
  • Planning for a solid orientation for the new executive and a great launch;
  • Ensuring that the governance team (the board and executive team) has a clear and effective social contract that includes consensus on overall direction and key initial priorities as well as a clear understanding of their respective roles and their contributions toward the achievement of the organization objectives; and
  • Establishing a performance monitoring and evaluation process.

Obviously executive search—recruiting and selecting the new executive—is an integral part of the process, but it is one of many factors that can affect the outcome of the transition.

Generally, executive transition programs are built on a “3 by 5” model:

  • Three basic phases of executive transition management:

    • Phase 1—Getting Ready

    • Phase 2—Recruitment and Selection

    • Phase 3—Post-Hire Installation and Evaluation

  • Five developmental steps for the interim period:

    • Coming to terms with history

    • Exploring identity and direction

    • Making leadership/operational changes

    • Renewing linkages

    • Committing to new leadership and a new direction



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    BIG NEWS...
    TransitionGuides has transitioned! 



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

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 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

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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.
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 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.