A Passing, a New Pope, and the Opportunities in Nonprofit Executive Search

“It Isn’t the Changes that Do You In”

“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions,” wrote William Bridges in his ground breaking book titled Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.  “They aren’t the same thing,” he continues, “Change is situational…Transition, on the other hand, is psychological: it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.”

The New York Times, in its obituary of Mr. Bridges (who passed away on February 17th of this year) noted that Bridges’ “…pioneering work on transition transformed the way people think about change…Mr. Bridges had a worldwide impact on educators, psychologists, corporate executives, business consultants, and non-profit leaders, as well as the general public.”

We will always be grateful to Mr. Bridges here at the Support Center/Partnership In Philanthropy (SC/PIP), as his work forms the heart of the way we conduct our Executive Search work.  In contrast to traditional executive search – which can be one-dimensional and misses the depth of opportunities in transition – our focus goes beyond the surface of finding the next nonprofit leader, to insuring that the search process not only secures the right next leader, but also minimizes the risks and maximizes the opportunities available during the transition.

A New Pope – The Change Triggers Transition

In February, quite unexpectedly, Pope Benedict XVI resigned and left a legion of Catholics wondering about future Church leadership and anxious about the future.  Most were surprised, many confused, some were sad and others angry.  William Bridges, of course, would have predicted these reactions suggesting that anger, anxiety, sadness and disorientation are the natural emotions of transitions.  He would, however, have quickly noted that if handled skillfully and thoughtfully, the transition would offer an enormous opportunity for change and growth.

Bridges posed that in each change process we go through three-phases of transition:  1) The Ending – the experience of loss and letting go that triggers a full range of emotional responses; 2) The Neutral Zone – the unknown, where critical re-thinking and a new future can be imagined; 3) The New Beginning – a new identity and new energy can be embraced with a “new sense of purpose that [can] make the change begin to work.”  Clearly these phases were evident in the transition in Rome, as a strong reaction of mixed emotions emerged at the announcement; anxiety with a mix of hopefulness emerged in the “neutral zone” as followers awaited the announcement of new leadership; and hopefulness and energy reigned as Pope Francis greeted the masses on the day of his selection.

While our nonprofit leadership transitions don’t attract quite so much media attention, these phases are clearly at work.  The SC/PIP Executive Search model, which has been developed in collaboration with our grantmaking partners including the Annie E. Casey, JPMorgan Chase, Clark, and Altman Foundations, has been found to reduce the risks of transitions and strengthen organizational health and effectiveness.

Making the Most of an Executive Search

An early study of this approach described by the Annie E.  Casey Foundation in their monograph Capturing the Power of Leadership Change “retrospectively analyzed a five-year capacity building and executive transition initiative conducted by the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation…This research found that these organizations had significant positive outcomes from utilizing the model including increases in executive tenure (from 4.3 to 5.7 years),“healthy” rankings (from 67% to 89%) and direct investment and growth in funding in communities served (from $146.7 million to $418.9 million).”  More recent assessments of this model here in New York, as well as assessments in San Francisco and Maryland show similar results.

Over the past ten years, we have assisted a wide-range of nonprofit organizations in our region helping them get the most out of their search process, significantly minimizing the risks and maximizing the opportunities.  We’re not sure that the Vatican knew of the good work of Mr. Bridges (no, they didn’t call us for assistance).  But it has been reported that the “search and transition team” spent a good deal of time thinking about the management of the transition process and the risks and opportunities they faced going toward the future.  Was the job description redesigned based on a comprehensive organizational assessment?  We’re not sure, but Bridges surely would have recommended it!

Warm regards,


Don Crocker
Executive Director/CEO

Don Crocker

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