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Smoothing the leadership transition

An impending leadership change can be stressful for any organization. If your nonprofit is already in conflict, dealing with a new leader may be particularly painful. Consider steps to smooth the leadership transition — and what a new executive director or chief executive can do to bring stability to your organization.

Bringing a new leader on board

One of the keys to successfully bringing a new leader on board is a careful transition plan for the outgoing leader — and a plan for how and when the new leader should take over. Whether key staff stepped up to fill any gaps during the interim or the board assumed operational roles for a period of time, it's critical to clarify responsibilities and timelines once the new leader is in place.

Understanding the source of conflict

Conflict within a nonprofit isn't inherently negative. Similarly, it isn't possible — or even desirable — to eliminate all conflict from an organization. In some cases, conflict may even serve as a source of creativity or energy. Still, it's crucial to understand the source of the strife within your nonprofit.

Ask questions, including:

  • Is the conflict productive?
  • Is the conflict about trying to do the right thing for your organization, its staff and clients?
  • Are mutual respect and appreciation for differing perspectives maintained?

If the answers are yes, then intervention might not be necessary. If the answer to any of these questions is no, however, your organization might be losing more than it's gaining from the disagreements.

Taking action

What can a new executive do to address conflict that's distracting your nonprofit from its mission?

  • Don't add to the chaos. The first job of a leader is to be a good role model. Professional conduct might guide others into behaving in more appropriate ways. It's essential that your new executive does not take sides or behave in ways that fuel the conflict.
  • Clarify expectations. When roles and responsibilities aren't well defined, conflicts are likely to ensue. Consider whether board members need a refresher on their responsibilities. The same goes for staff.
  • Conduct an organizational climate assessment. Your new executive can get to know what's on the minds of staff members through one-on-one meetings or a staff survey. This might help your executive understand what's causing the conflict.
  • Encourage active listening. Conflict often flows from flawed assumptions people make about other people or situations. Ask your staff to examine their assumptions and to work on their listening skills. Discourage interrupting, responding by correcting, and shifting the conversation away from a colleague's account to a similar experience of one's own.

Seeking outside help

If the conflict in your organization has gone on too long or involves too many people, resolution may require outside assistance. If that's the case, it might be time to bring in a mediator or an organizational consultant who can help the people in your organization listen to and better understand each other.

A mediator avoids judgments about the participants, the situation and the behavior that created the conflict. Instead, this outsider helps facilitate discussion between those involved so they can consider the options for moving forward and come to a mutually acceptable agreement.

If your staff is resistant to working with a mediator, explain that denying or ignoring the presence of conflict isn't helping anyone — and is likely draining staff and volunteer energy and wasting managerial time. Also, the conflict is unlikely to go away unless it's addressed. Working through conflict together can be constructive and even lead to increased creativity and productivity.

Preventive steps

Looking ahead, make conflict resolution part of your organization's routine work. Look for training opportunities to give your staff the confidence and skills to communicate clearly with each other and to demonstrate respect, even in the face of disagreement.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Foundation Group: Conflict within your nonprofit — handle with care by Greg McRay (2009)

IDEA: An organization's board of directors by Elisa Warner Can conflict in nonprofits be managed successfully? by Elisabeth Seaman

Third Sector New England: Organizational drama: A systems look at conflict by Bob Greene (2014)

NonProfit PRO: Leadership change: Here's how to make it as painless as possible by Joe Boland (2015)

OrgWise: Building peace within nonprofit organizations by Christine Peringer (2005)



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