If you ask me, there aren’t many universal truths in the world. One of the few is that change is inevitable, especially in the nonprofit sector. The older a nonprofit, the more changes it’s likely to go through including transitions in leadership. Organizations should prepare for these transitions to make the process as smooth as possible. A smooth transition creates an even smoother assimilation for the person stepping into the role. Not to mention, a better experience for stakeholders!

But how should nonprofit organizations prepare for transitions in leadership?

I’ve got a few thoughts.

1. Encourage Professional Development

Sometimes organizational leadership forgets how important professional development is and why it’s significant for growth. In the worst cases, managers might view professional development as a drain on their finances, and less of what it is: a long-term investment.

If you have a workplace culture where professional development is encouraged, when there’s a change in leadership, you already have a skilled pool of candidates. These candidates are familiar with the nonprofit organization’s culture, internal procedures, and mission. Their familiarity supports the process because they’re not a stranger to stakeholders.

2. Understand the Transition

An important part of organizational change is how stakeholders react, and how an organization manages that reaction. When it comes to transitions in leadership, there’s a difference between a person getting promoted, demoted, moved to another team, or leaving the organization entirely, especially if they’re disgruntled. The remaining leadership team needs to understand the why behind the change to communicate this reasoning to the board and staff. Having a plan ahead of time also prevents that infamous rumor mill from starting up.

3. Establish a Succession Plan

You’ve got the who, where, and why behind the transition. Now, you will have to know when and what to develop a succession plan. This document should include a timeline laying out the change in leadership. For example, if the head of finance is leaving your organization, include the date they’re expected to leave, deadlines for the hiring process, and an ideal hiring date for that position in the document. You can learn more about succession planning in this post. If you want to take it a step further, link to the new hire’s onboarding document. Because you want this transition to be as smooth as possible, frequently updating this document as needed is critical.

4. Involve Staff in Hiring

Getting people invested in your cause is key when it comes to engagement. The same is true for your staff, including when there’s a change in leadership. If the person leaving is someone who has good relationships with the staff, they may look at whoever replaces them skeptically, and even compare the two. A smooth transition includes (ideally) a genuine welcome from staff, and the way you get a genuine welcome is by involving them in the hiring process.

While they may not have the final decision, staff can help the executives and HR narrow down the applicant pool. Requesting a list of desired qualifications for the new hire from staff along with some selected interview questions is one way for them to become familiar with whoever steps into the role.

5. Over-communicate

With change comes uncertainty and fear around that change. Stakeholders will be concerned about how quickly the position will be filled if the new hire will be a cultural fit for the nonprofit, and a general fear of what other changes could follow. These are normal and valid reactions.

To put those fears to rest, communication is key. You want to be transparent with everyone who could potentially be impacted by this transition, and hear their thoughts, both the positive and the critical. Remember to keep everyone updated because, in the end, the best way to handle transitions in leadership is as a team.


If you’re interested in learning more about succession planning, schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me to see what we can get done. You’re not in this alone!


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