January 27, 2015

The case for the interim executive director


Kathy Ridge

Kathy Ridge

Too often, there is panic when an organization experiences an executive vacancy. 

Given that most nonprofits are strapped for resources, board members face the real possibility they might have to step in and do that work because there is no surplus internal staff capacity. 

Boards, then, often feel forced to consider short-term questions. How quickly can we fill this position? Who do we already know in this field? Can we quickly post the current job description? Can we fill it internally with someone who already knows everything?  

But the exit of a senior staffer should be a strategic choice point - an opportunity to look forward to future needs without having to consider the presence, capacity and limitations of the departing executive. 

This is the prime time to assess an organization's business model and staffing to determine what is needed to advance the organization's mission.  

For some nonprofits, a professional interim executive can play the key role in that succession planning by providing the opportunity to disconnect from the previous executive.  

The Presbyterian Church, for example, has long insisted that a retiring senior pastor be followed by an interim preacher, from outside, to break the congregation's ties to the former pastor.

This exercise serves to open up the church to what comes next.

A nonprofit with a skilled interim executive in place can disconnect in a similar fashion from its former leader and thoughtfully assess next steps, all while the daily operation of the organization forges ahead. 

Moving too quickly to fill a vacancy can result in the candidate who most resembles the departing executive or who is his or her polar opposite.

Such a selection often is a reaction to previous skills and personality rather than an objective assessment of what's most needed. 

Sometime boards select a prominent retired business leader as the interim, then congratulate themselves on a distinguished placement. 

But without prior nonprofit experience, even an experienced corporate executive can have difficulty adjusting to work life without personal staff, which can mean doing their own filing and powerpoint presentations, ordering their own supplies, making high-level presentations and then stopping at the grocery store to pick up napkins for a fundraising reception.   

It is equally important to consider the impact of asking an internal staff member to serve as the interim. 

That person likely is already over-burdened, and being asked to assume additional work might not be welcome, even if these are higher level responsibilities.  

And an internal staff interim can potentially create negative impact after the successor executive is hired.

Is he or she a candidate for the position? Will she be paid more? When the interim period is over, will she be "demoted" back to her former position? Why is it she could be capable of assuming interim executive duties but not qualified for the permanent position?  

Contracting with a professionally trained and experienced interim executive can be smart succession planning.

An experienced interim can keep the staff engaged, donors interested and the board appropriately involved during the search for a permanent hire. 

Ultimately, an interim executive can provide the board of directors with the opportunity to determine how best to move into a successful future.

Kathy Ridge is the founder of Edvance Consulting Group, a North Carolina-based firm that provides education and nonprofit consulting and interim executive services.

Comment on this article


what type of a job description is realistic for a non-profit interim ED. Our existing job description is very lengthy and detailed. What should the priorities be after assessing the current mission, policies and procedures that have been missing for this organization to be successful.

Kathy, I am a partner in an organization called the Center for Congregation Health, Inc. We have been training and supporting Intentional Interim Ministers for over 15 years now and just a few years back had the opportunity "practice what we preach" by using an Intentional Interim Director after our founding director took another position. It was a great time of reflection and preparation for our new leader. It also wasn't easy but I wouldn't change a thing. Living in the present and reflecting on the past can be great preparation for the future! Thanks for the article.

Well said, Kathy. You pointed out that Board's challenge is to look at what is best for the organization rather than what is best or most comfortable for the Board or Bboard chair.

When a executive director serves a nonprofit for 7 to 10 years or more, an organization/institution will show evidence of the leader's strengths and weaknesses. Executive turnover can be a healthy thing for a nonprofit --and especially the opportunity for the board to hear an objective analysis of the what is and isn't happening from someone who has no long term interest in the role. It is easier for an interim executive director to share challenging news or deliver the message that the Emperor has no clothes.

This is a good analysis of the options available to nonprofit boards. As a fundraising consultant, I have often shared my own experience with interim pastors through the Presbyterian Church. Having someone from outside who is not a candidate take the lead can be a great move for a nonprofit. It really does give them the best chance to start anew with the right person in place to move things forward.

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