Transition in Nonprofit Organizations

  • Pamela RansomEmail author
Living reference work entry


Nonprofit Organization Successful Transition Organizational Life Leadership Transition Transition Consultant 
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A transition is generally understood to involve the process of passing from one state, stage, place, or subject to another or movement across boundaries. A number of different meanings connected with the term include that of passage, some type of alteration or conversion, the concept of change, and also a connection to what follows.


Nonprofit organizations experience a range of transitions linked to the myriad of changes that are an inevitable part of organizational life. Transitions in organizations are slightly different from the general concept of change because a transition involves not only the change itself but also the psychological process of people adapting or coming to terms with change (Bridges 1980; Hinden and Tebbe 2003). This is an internal process that involves both mental and behavioral adjustments to change for the individuals involved. Specific phases of a transition include first the ending, or the phase of finishing or bringing closure to the existing situation or status quo; a secondary period, that is, the unsettled phase between what is the existing and the new condition; and then the final period of new beginnings indicative that a change has finally occurred or been completed (Bridges 1980).

During the initial ending phase of a transition, the primary challenge is to get rid of old patterns and identity. This phase often engenders a range of reactions for involved participants that accompany uncertainty. This second phase involves a variety of steps related to the process of readjustment to new forms of operation, while in the final phase, the new identity or condition is formed and/or reaffirmed. To make a new beginning successful, it is suggested that there are four essential components including communication of the purpose, creation of a clear picture or vision, formulation of a plan, and finally determination of the part that individuals who are involved need to play (Bridges 2009). Critical tasks in the process of successful transition are those involved in appropriate management and anticipation of the many small adjustments that change incurs, since those not properly managed increase the level of difficulty involved.

One theory links transitions in organizations to two drivers, or what are called “motors” at the individual and organizational level (Cule and Robey 2004). These are related to either managerial actions, called the teleological motor, or at the organizational level, a dialectic motor, that includes factors both supporting and opposing change. Three phases of transition include creation, destruction, and unification. At each of the phases of transitions, it is clear that strong organizational leadership can play an important role, helping individuals not only face and acknowledge problems but also find the necessary spirit of motivation to face the road ahead.

Transitions and Nonprofit Organizational Stages

With respect to nonprofit organizations, there are a number of stages in the life of most organizations which involve a range of transitional adjustments and reconfigurations. Many of these are linked to the natural life cycle of organizations and impacts on the individuals involved. All nonprofit organizations move through the stage of formation, through a phase of ongoing operation and functioning, and finally through the stage of eventual closure, transformation, or institutional death. It is useful to think of seven phases of the organization including the initial idea, start-up, growth, and maturity, followed by eventual loss of relevance, movement into new directions, and/or decline (Stevens 2001). Mapping involved organizational stakeholders would find that adjustments and ongoing transitions are part of each phase. These often relate to role transitions as individuals move into new positions or change orientation to roles previously held (Ashforth 2001). Each transition involves rites of passage related to separation, transition, and finally incorporation linked to role exit, movement between roles, and finally entry when a new role or status is defined (Ashforth 2001; Kralik et al. 2006). Most transitions are also accompanied by a range of complex and sometimes contradictory emotions, both negative and positive, including feelings such as anxiety, frustration, sadness, shock, denial, or anger, as well as those of excitement or peace (Adams 2010).

One of the first major transitions for all nonprofit organization involves moving through the early phases involving the process of formation. During this period, individuals, including the organizational founder or head, are taking on new roles as organizational systems are shaped. The phase demands those with a special type of entrepreneurial spirit, some propensity toward risk taking, and ability to address problems with new ideas. Thus, a blend of commitment, tenacity, vision, and skills in articulation of the nonprofit mission is key. Successful transition through this early phase often involves some community outreach and tapping resources of volunteers. Most nonprofits face a challenging environment with fierce competition often due to high density of organizations. Survival is enhanced by navigational ability, scoping of regional attitudes toward philanthropy, clear identification and focus on relevant policy, and enough viable sources of funding for the organization to survive. During this stage, because most nonprofits are small with minimal operating systems and budgets, some degree of passion of the initial founder and other involved actors is key.

For this phase of transition to run smoothly, it is important to balance the development of administration, programs, and governing strategies (Stevens 2001). There are useful tools for diagnostic assessment of capacity and organizational readiness to move through this developmental stage. These include a range of elements including articulation of the idea, development of a program, market and operational organization, core group expertise, commitment, motivation, and relations with beneficiaries. During this phase, individuals new to the organization are undergoing a process of role socialization and adjustment to unfamiliar work role demands. The person-environment fit theory defines the dual adjustment processes to new work environments that are taking place that involve both reactive adjustments of individuals learning to fit the environment and active mode adjustments as the environment adapts to individuals involved (Niessen et al. 2010).

For nonprofit organizations a variety of other types of transitions also take place during later operational phases as the organization continues to thrive and grow. This is a stage in which sustainability requires adjustments and role reconfigurations to ensure leadership competence, management capability, and appropriate levels of financial management skills. Accountability to boards, community served, and those with resources often requires a range of periodic transformations, both large and small. In some sense, transitional processes continue to reverberate through the organization as a result of ongoing adjustments to major changes in location, leadership, management, and policy. Sometimes these involve shifts in focus or internal versus external orientation, for example, as service is broadened, narrowed, or redefined.

Successful transitions of this nature necessitate systemic thinking, thoughtful planning and preparation for a wide range of ramifications that may result. Careful consideration should be given to strategies to increase communication, cooperation, transparency, and the necessary resources, with implications for leaders, managers, and the board (Kreutzer 2009). Transitions linked to the operational phase may even include introduction of new or major changes to existing equipment and technology. This involves consideration of issues such as differential levels of staff knowledge, training, levels of technology anxiety, as well as impacts on decision-making, security, privacy, or even budgetary considerations where technology plays a role. There are a variety of helpful resources including information technology resource centers, guides or consultants for nonprofits available to provide help.

Leadership Transitions

Leadership changes are one of the most critical and sometimes traumatic, internal transitions that most nonprofits face at some point in time. These are impacting an increasing number of nonprofits for a variety of reasons including the large number of retirements among aging baby boomers (Bell et al. 2006). Transitions in governance are sometimes the result of voluntary retirements and departures or because of involuntary reasons such as firing, sickness, or death. These transitions sometimes take place swiftly with little time for adjustment or at other times quite slowly with a great deal of lead time before the change (Board Source 2010). Although leadership transitions are often traumatic with potential to threaten the very existence of the organization, they can also provide important opportunities for new transformation and increased vitality if the process is handled well (Chapman and Vogelsang 2005).

Impacts from leadership transitions are particularly severe when these individuals are the original organizational founders or have been with the organization for long periods of time. Some leaders have special qualities of charisma that have shaped and defined the character of the organization and key relationships with stakeholders over many years. They may also have a long memory of the organizational history which is uniquely their own. The period before departure or replacement of the organizational head may lead to a range of subtle disruptions with respect to staff, funders, and key stakeholders, sometimes generating high level of fears and anxiety about change and organizational collapse. These anxieties are better managed if they are anticipated and addressed well in advance. Boards tend to discount the significance of the process of transition to new leadership and the myriad number of tasks where they may need to get involved. Thus, many fail to take advantage of important opportunities to move the organization forward to new levels of strength (Allison 2002). It is suggested that a critical period is the initial five day period after departure of a long-standing leader. A successful transitional process requires a five-step process of engaging in organizing, stabilizing, understanding, planning, and finally executing (Board Source 2010). Others have divided the executive leadership transitional process into three phases including the stages of preparing, pivoting, and thriving (Adams 2010).

While less than half the nonprofits have succession plans in place, these can be important tools which help with the adjustment process of transitional preparation. Succession planning is all too often ignored for a range of reasons including costs, time involved, as well as fears about administrative issues involved in coordination. Planning initiatives can either be those that are departure defined, as a result of an emergency, or part of the process of ongoing leadership development (Adams 2010). These plans involve commitments to basic building blocks of transition including identification of the need for leadership change, appropriate preparatory assessments including formulation of time frames, and roles necessary for the process to run smoothly (Hinden and Tebbe 2003). If time and circumstances permit, steps in the period before the departure may include coaching of the exiting leader or director as well as taking steps to formally recognize and celebrate their past contributions. Various types of succession and transition management assessment tools are available, with several quite easy to use (Adams 2010).

In the phase to begin the transition to new leadership, it is helpful to create a transition committee or team. The board can take this step to help ensure there is appropriate oversight of the subsequent transitional process including providing guidance for the hiring process to replace the former director. A transition consultant may also play a useful role. The field of individuals with this expertise is growing into a new area called ETM or executive transition management (Hinden and Tebbe 2003). Planning the transitional process can be further formalized through the creation of a transition plan. This provides an opportunity for consideration of the range of activities that need to be worked through including preparation for outreach and communication, organizational assessment, developing job descriptions, and interim management strategies to ensure that organizational knowledge transfer about various systems including financial systems takes place. Consultants work with organizations as part of the transitional process to develop a more well-defined sense of strategic direction and organizational work plan.

It is recommended that major leadership changes in roles such as that of an executive director should be a process that is approached gradually. For example, bringing on board an interim director who is not a candidate for the full-time role is useful to help guide the organization through the phase before the actual formal replacement of the executive director. The permanent full-time role should only be filled after a more careful process of planning, consultation, and multi-stakeholder involvement in the assessment of requirements for the job. After completion of a more comprehensive search, a new director should then be brought on board. The first year generally involves a period of combined help from the transition consultant and committee working together to lay out expectations. It is useful for the transition consultant to facilitate communication through clarification of concerns and expectations between the board and executive director in a meeting that takes place a few months after they are brought on board. Because transitional processes can be complex, consideration should also be given to seeking specialized grants or funding to help with resources during this period to ensure that the organization is fully prepared (Allison 2002).

Endings and Transitions

The phase of ending major programs or the organization as a whole includes other important transitions for many of those involved. This phase usually involves job layoffs for staff who must also undergo a variety of critical transformations related to ending and starting anew. Organizational resizings also have a range of transitional implications for remaining staff who often struggle with what has been characterized as the layoff survivor syndrome. They often feel increased pressure from additional amounts of work, new levels of uncertainty about roles, as well as a reduced sense of security, confidence, and trust. Similar to the steps involved in preparation for leadership transitions, it is useful before the actual closure or downsizing for the organization to spend time in reflection on previous processes related to termination to consider how to handle layoffs with new levels of dignity and respect (Bridges 2009).

Failure or closure of nonprofits, particularly in the human service field, is often influenced by factors including age, size, or the organizational focus. Nonprofits in the human service sector with missions focused in certain areas such as emergency management may be less likely to fail, while, not surprisingly, those with smaller assets may be more likely to undergo closure. Organizations between 5 and 9 years are also more likely to fail than those in existence for over 20 years. Flexibility in the use of volunteers may be a buffering factor. Problems that lead to failure come from organizational inability to control procedures or finances or a wide range of external issues including reputation, regulations, or changes in the market for the services the organization provides. Some nonprofits, particularly those involved with social service, sometimes overcome challenges of self-sufficiency by introducing various types of commercial ventures. Higher levels of income can sometimes contribute to an organization’s ability to survive.

Irrespective of the factors leading to closure, failure, or endings, this phase of organizational life touches many stakeholders, each with a variety of transitional issues playing a role. Closing a nonprofit usually is not a quick process, often taking several months to unfold. Utilization of outside resources to help with the transitional process can help reduce the level of pain and anxiety for involved participants and ensure that the process moves smoothly. However, even when closures are announced well in advance, this begins a period of significant anxiety and uncertainty for all involved, and there may be times when employees have difficulties facing the realities at hand. It is also important to recognize that most of these uncertainties will lessen over time and that increased flexibility in coping is linked to better adaptation.

Four natural phases of role exits include that of grappling first with doubts, then alternatives, reaching a turning point, and then a final phase of adjustment to the ex-role (Ebaugh 1988). Leadership in the ending phase of a transition is always key, and acknowledgment of the situation by marking endings can also help. The process of closure or failure can often be particularly stressful for the organizational leader or head. Formulation of a core group of trusted advisors and time for appropriate self-care are useful as the process unfolds. Dissolution planning is recommended which involves establishing and moving toward specific goals and objectives to ensure the process unfolds in a strategic way. This includes careful consideration and implementation of steps related to the necessity for dealing with assets, the organizational legacy including interest group outreach, and appropriate levels of stakeholder communication.


Each of the stages of nonprofit organizational life involves a variety of complex transitions with important implications for the various impacted individuals. Transitions involve important stages of ending, being in-between, and new beginnings that touch many stakeholders who are part of organizational life. There are a wide variety of triggers for staff who undergo role entries or exits characterized by a myriad of physical or psychological adjustments and changes that occur (Ashforth 2001). The process of individuals entering new roles involves a wide range of subtle negotiations between the individual and organization as new forms of identity are forged. This involves accompanying phases of self-definition, shaping of new meaning, and establishing control as well as a sense of belonging. Role exits on the other hand that occur because of downsizing, firing, closures, or even managerial changes are characterized by complex processes of disengagement that can be either voluntary or involuntary, depending upon the circumstances. A critical component of most successful transitions involves core components including careful planning, good communication, and implementation of systems to ensure the process moves smoothly.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Metropolitan College of New YorkNew YorkUSA