Transitions: Must Things Always Remain the Same?

In the nonprofit world, change is inevitable. No matter the nature of the change – from relocating offices to re-conceiving the organization’s purpose; from hiring new staff and bringing on new board members to shifting funding patterns – every instance of change leads an organization into a transitional phase.

You might say that when it comes to the words “change” and “transition” it is all a matter of semantics. I beg to differ.

I want to stress the difference between the “changes” themselves and the process by which an organization seizes change as an opportunity to really experience transition. For example, a new chief executive officer (CEO) is hired to take over the administration of the organization. This is a change in the professional leadership of the organization but it does not necessarily reflect the experience of transition within the agency. Or the chairperson of the board of directors completes a term of office and a new chair is elected. This signifies a new volunteer leader is now head of the agency but it does not necessarily mean there is any real change. A change in personnel does not signal an integral change in the way a nonprofit organization delivers its services.

When there are changes in volunteer and professional leadership these are opportunities for the nonprofit agency to engage in a transitional process. Often, new leaders bring their unique and different approaches to their responsibilities and implementation. When this happens either the culture of the organization remains the same or there is the potential to see substantive change in way the agency provides services to the community.

Transitions, by definition, can be threatening because many people feel secure when workplace remains the same. It is not at all unusual for volunteers to feel very comfortable when their assignments remain the same. Despite this, new leadership brings with it the opportunity to look at things from different perspectives and to raise questions about whether it is in the best interest of an organization to continue with the status quo simply because “we have always done it this way.”

Of course, it goes without saying that the ability to respond positively to transitions is very often determined by the behavior and style of the incoming volunteer or professional leader. The leaders who determine their agendas before meeting and engaging with their constituents are inviting resistance from the beginning. When volunteers and staff are brought into the process at an early stage, they will feel part of whatever changes are being introduced.

In order to provide a sense of continuity between terms of leadership it is appropriate to begin a planning process for the transitional phase as soon as the new leader begins his or her new role. A new chair of the board can appoint a committee to plan a series of meetings for the chairpersons of board committees. Another approach is to plan a special board meeting to elicit ideas from the incumbent board members on the challenges facing the organization and its board as they move forward. The idea is to bring people into the process so they are an integral part of the transition and are not just being told what will be happening during the months and years ahead.

It is quite possible that when people are brought into the transitional process they are more invested in both the planned changes and the organization itself. This will undoubtedly have an impact on how they view the mission of the organization and the role they play in actualizing it. They are being empowered to share in the development of the agency and the services it provides.

The same goes for the professional and administrative staff of the organization. The staff of the agency should identify with the mission and purpose of the agency. However, if the CEO wants the staff to be motivated beyond the compensation they receive for their efforts in implementing the agency’s program then there must be opportunities for them to participate in the process of planning and developing the services.

As the board members are invited to participate in a process focused on the chairpersons of committees or the entire board, staff members could also be engaged in a number of ways, such as with a two or three-day staff retreat. A staff committee could also be created to work in parallel with the board committee to examine the mission, purposes and goals of the organization. Through the use of these approaches the staff is invited to make an investment in the development of the organization.

In all of these approaches the newly elected board chairperson or the incoming CEO has to be prepared to share the process with other people. Inviting the lay leadership and the agency staff to join in utilizing the transition as an opportunity to create change will only work if the CEO is committed to involving people in a substantive way. If people are engaged in the process and the results of their deliberations are dismissed then they will not only be frustrated but they will also not trust the leadership of the organization.

Transitions can be excellent opportunities to engage people in the mission, purpose and function of the nonprofit organization. The strength of the organization is its volunteer and staff leadership. The incoming board chairs and CEO’s who know how to motivate their volunteers and staff members will have a strong organization and will work with very committed people.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.