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How transitional leadership can help your nonprofit conquer the Great Resignation

Vice President (Former)

The nonprofit sector is experiencing an unprecedented staffing crisis. Fundraisers are moving into new roles or leaving the profession altogether. At Graham-Pelton, conversations with nonprofit leaders who are struggling to attract and retain fundraising talent is increasing exponentially.

Prolonged staffing challenges are impacting both morale and metrics, which jeopardizes the ability of nonprofits to fulfill their missions. This does not have to be the case. Transitional staffing makes it possible to maintain fundraising momentum and employee engagement, even in times of high turnover.

This guide will help you understand the most important trends impacting the nonprofit workforce. It also highlights the critical factors to consider to be successful with transitional staffing. Let’s get started.

The Great Resignation’s impact on nonprofits

The term “the Great Resignation” was coined only a year ago in May 2021 by Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at Texas A&M University. Since then, we’ve seen tremendous movement in the nonprofit sector for several reasons. Still, some common themes have emerged.

Three reasons why nonprofit leaders are leaving

  • Executive salary increases: This industry-wide game of musical chairs in leadership is fueled in part by a 30% salary increase for nonprofit executives over the past two years, as reported by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
  • Retiring baby boomers: Many baby boomers were nearing retirement when COVID-19 emerged and chose to lead their organization through the pandemic. With operations stabilizing, retirements are increasing.
  • An equitable take on leadership: Many nonprofits are placing a new or renewed focus on their DEIB missions and initiatives, which may require new leadership with specialized expertise.

Transitional Staffing: Why it exists and how it’s different

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve supported nonprofit leaders from all sectors with transitional staffing and leadership. As the Great Resignation gives way to the Great Reshuffle, the need for immediate fundraising leadership is becoming even more apparent. There is an urgency to reconnect with lapsed donors and to re-launch fundraising initiatives that have sat dormant since March 2020.

Why are we using the term “Transitional” instead of “Interim”? It’s an intentional response to the collective transitions taking place in teams and individuals throughout our profession. To paraphrase William Bridges’ classic book Transitions:

“We know that change is external: staff departures, new hires, and new practices. However, transition is internal: a reorientation that your team goes through before the change can work.”

— William Bridges

Every member of a development team experiences a disruption when a colleague leaves; this is the nature of our interconnected work. Transitional leadership, managed by an experienced fundraising professional, minimizes that disruption by providing stability, trusted leadership, and positive momentum. Transitional leaders support the hiring and onboarding of new staff, address immediate priorities, and provide direction and management to the existing team.

Choosing the right transitional leader for your nonprofit

Board chairs and executive leaders should consider if hiring an interim leader is the right approach for long-term organizational success, and if so, what type of interim leader is needed at this moment. Hastily made appointments can lead to serious and long-lasting consequences.

Dr. Jennifer Boulay studies women in interim leadership roles in higher education and cautioned board members and executive leaders to, “Be thoughtful about the interim process. You can’t just stick a warm body into a role and expect everything to work out.”

She goes on to share how uncertainty around interim appointments creates stress in the workplace:

“Uncertainty in the workplace can have an impact on more than just our comfort level.  When there’s ambiguity at work, it can lead to increased stress. Organizations must think about the interim timing thoughtfully and provide the greatest amount of care so that staff feel valued and supported throughout the process.”

— Dr. Jennifer Boulay

Additional research shows that ambiguity can have a profound negative impact on morale, leading to decreased organizational citizenship and lower job performance.

Leadership changes naturally create ambiguity, so think carefully about the role you want your transitional leadership to play. Then be prepared to communicate to the rest of your team clearly and directly.

Three types of transitional leaders

In their 2022 review of scholarly research on interim leadership, Dr. Viktoria Rubin and Dr. Jon Ohlsson describe three types of transitional leaders and their impacts on organizations.

The External Expert focuses on knowledge creation. They contribute to the organization’s understanding through in-depth analysis, the implementation of best practices, and a review of data analytics.

The Change Agent facilitates cultural change and takes advantage of the initial momentum to establish new norms that they believe are best for the organization long-term.

The Formal Manager keeps the ‘ship afloat’ and supports new staff.

Determining the type of transitional leader your organization needs involves a thorough and honest assessment of your current fundraising operations. External services, such as Graham-Pelton’s Transitional and Interim Staffing service, can help you clarify the right balance of leadership needed to propel your organization forward with momentum, focus, and stability.

Risks associated with Internal Appointments

Nonprofit leaders are often tempted to appoint an existing staff member to the interim role. Maybe they believe it will provide continuity or preserve the budget. Research indicates that appointing an internal candidate as interim may result in possible negative consequences for both the organization and the appointee.

Internal interim leaders may be more risk-averse and reluctant to take the significant steps needed to make positive change. They may fear jeopardizing existing relationships, preventing them from holding team members accountable for performance. Additionally, there is always the chance that internal appointees will not remain at the organization if they are passed over for the permanent role, causing additional turnover and turmoil. If they do remain, they are heading back into a team that they previously managed, which can create imbalance and possible ill will.

Other potential risks of internal appointments include:

  • Lacking the confidence to make difficult decisions
  • Insufficient knowledge of the specific skillset required for an executive leader (personnel, finance, legal, etc.)
  • Difficultly relinquishing leadership duties once the permanent position is filled

Our primary goal in the transitional phase is to set the permanent leadership up for long-term success. While selecting an internal appointee may be more cost-efficient and solves an immediate need, it is important to consider the potential of losing a valued team member. An external, transitional leader brings a wealth of knowledge from the field to create needed systems, develop staff, and maintain fundraising progress, which creates the ideal conditions for a new leader to take the helm.

You’ve hired new transitional leadership…Now what?

Set Clear Expectations: Once an interim leader has been announced, clearly define roles and responsibilities, recognizing that everyone on the team is experiencing a transition, which can be stressful. Mitigate that stress by identifying any priorities that might have shifted.

  • How has reporting and delegation structures changed?
  • Who is handling personnel issues?
  • Where can staff turn if they need more support in their work environment?

Live Your Ethos. Transitional leaders aren’t just responsible for overseeing daily operations; they also play an important role in supporting the culture and well-being of the team that is undergoing a transformation. Transitional leaders support and encourage individual staff members and reinforce the team’s culture by asking questions such as:

  • What was the departing leader’s style? Were they the first to bring donuts on Friday or did they cultivate a sense of humor on the team?
  • How can this team maintain the best parts of their character?
  • Are there opportunities for other team members to assume additional responsibilities or grow professionally during the transition?

Final thoughts and next steps

Hiring nonprofit leadership and fundraising staff is always challenging, and the current market is only making it more difficult to find the right candidates. While we don’t know when the Great Resignation will end, we do know this: your mission can’t wait. Engaging with a transitional leader can support organizational stability, retain and motivate staff, and set up permanent leadership for success.

To learn how Graham-Pelton’s Transitional & Interim Staffing service can help you achieve your fundraising goals, contact us online or call +1 (800) 608 7955.

Thanks to Dr. Tom Sechrest, Dr. Jennifer Boulay, Dr. Viktoria Rubin, and Dr. Jon Ohlsson for their scholarship and contributions to this article.


Boulay, J. (2022). Acting in the Academy: The Lived Experience of Female Interim Leaders in Higher Education (Doctoral dissertation, Johnson & Wales University).

Bridges, W. (1991). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Da Capo Press.

Rendon, J. (2022). Large Numbers of Nonprofit Leaders Are Stepping Down — and the Competition to Find New Ones Is ‘Fierce’. The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Rubin, V., & Ohlsson, J. (2022). The interim manager — a catalyst for organizational learning?The Learning Organization.

Saha, K., Reddy, M. D., Mattingly, S., Moskal, E., Sirigiri, A., & De Choudhury, M. (2019). Libra: On LinkedIn based Role Ambiguity and Its Relationship with Wellbeing and Job PerformanceProceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction3(CSCW), 1-30

Sechrest, T. (2020). The Interim Leader: Organizational Considerations Before the Permanent Leader ArrivesJournal of Leadership, Accountability & Ethics17(4).