The interim executive director (ED) for a non-profit organization fulfills the role of CEO during the leadership transition to a new long-term ED. Ideally, he or she is only interested in the interim role, thereby able to focus on maintaining continuity of mission, programs and services, administrative, financial, fund raising and community relations as well as day-to-day leadership and support for all staff and volunteers. The interim ED is selected by and is accountable to the Board of Directors, serving as the voice of the staff to the Board similar to the permanent ED. Length of the interim ED’s assignment typically lasts 3-12 months. The interim ED role is most beneficial to the nonprofit when a thorough plan for a seamless transition and handoff to the new executive is developed and followed by the Board and its Recruitment or Leadership Transition Committee. The most effective interim ED is not a candidate for the long-term position so they can keep their objective focus on best interests of the organization and shining the light on issues that must be addressed rather than campaigning for the appointment.
Your non-profit world can change quickly and unpredictably. Sometimes unexpected health or family issues, major changes in Board leadership, funding or strategic direction can trigger a need for immediate help. It may be difficult to decide who to trust and where to turn to make a quick and all important decision on new leadership. If this is your situation and you are considering hiring an executive search firm for non-profit leaders, give me call before you do so we can meet to discuss what options and resources will best meet your organization's need.
There may be advantages and disadvantages of hiring an external interim executive director/CEO vs. assigning an existing staff leader or Board member during a transition. Every organization and situation is unique. However, there are important considerations in making the interim assignment decision. Frequently options are limited by candidate availability. Where the organization has the option of considering an external candidate, the benefits may include: bringing in the objective perspective of an experienced executive who will partner with Board and staff to actually help ‘lift’ the organization during the transition and prepare the way for the success of the incoming leader, flexibility of using an outside resource during a process with indeterminate time frame and results, and enabling current staff and Board leaders to maintain their critical current roles unburdened with multiple jobs. In circumstances where there are internal candidate(s) for the long-term ED position, prospective applicants have the opportunity to apply for the job on the same footing as anyone else without taking on all of the challenges of the transition role as an ‘audition.’ (The candidate also may be able to receive strong mentorship and some training during this transition period.)
The interim ED may help introduce options for change and set the stage for the new long term leader's successful implementation of the best solutions to both entrenched problems and strategic growth. Every organization is unique and requires an individualized plan.
While the 'permanent' CEO leads organization change and strategic growth under Board leadership, a well prepared interim CEO assures organization stability, 'shines a light' on unresolved issues that need to be addressed to strengthen the organization and assure the new long term leader's success, and maintains solid relationships with all constituents during a time of major change. A good interim leader also guides stewardship of financial resources while providing stable support for all staff. The next long term executive will lead the charge as the face of the mission to the community as well as lead staff and volunteers to implement Board approved future vision for community impact.
Experienced executives from diverse backgrounds may be successful as interim leaders. The most important requirements are breadth of non-profit executive experience, analytical and interpersonal skills, flexibility, financial management skills, ability to quickly engage in building trusting relationships with staff, Board and community constituents and the understanding of the important differences between the interim and permanent ED roles in setting priorities during the transition.
Ideally, the most qualified interim executive will have received specialized training and have available consultative resources (such as the Interim Executive Director Certification program I participate in at Mission Capital, the Austin based non-profit capacity builder, to aid their optimal performance in this challenging role.
Ideally, every CEO and Board President would work together to create and maintain a current leadership succession plan. Increasing best practice is also to utilize succession planning for Board officer and committee leadership roles as well as for all levels of staff. Succession planning for all staff provides opportunity for potential career development as well as cross training to aid preparation for unexpected staff changes. These plans should address contingencies for unexpected departures and emergency leadership needs as well as a well thought out succession process for planned retirements. Unfortunately, this forward thinking approach is not yet prevailing practice for most busy nonprofit organizations. I would be pleased to consult with you and your organization to help identity succession plans that best fit your mission. An important point is that ultimately the Board (not the current CEO) is in charge of CEO selection, supervision and termination. Ideally, current Board and executive leadership will work closely together to develop a consensus process to provide optimal decision making during leadership transitions.