Interim Executives – A Strategy to Aid a Smooth Transition

Every year, thousands of nonprofits experience the departure of an executive. Faced with this challenging and typically unfamiliar situation, boards can easily make missteps that jeopardize their most important governance decision. 

One way a board of directors can minimize risk is to hire an external interim executive director (IED) to serve between CEOs. This strategy gives the board time to conduct its search strategically, with the peace of mind that the organization will be well-managed during the transition. The interim executive can be part of their team, helping assess the nonprofit’s strengths and challenges and act during the transition to build a better platform for the incoming CEO.

Interim EDs typically work 20-30 hours per week. Their work is more internally focused, on operations and transitional tasks, and less on the external role serving as the “face” of the organization.   Among qualities an IED should possess are: the ability to communicate and work effectively with both the staff and the board; a propensity for strategic thinking; and executive level skills and experience. Ideally, they should not be candidates for the CEO position as this can cloud their objectivity.

Boards, especially in small or cash-strapped organizations, may imagine that hiring an interim executive is not financially feasible. But interims generally work within the parameters of the nonprofit’s budget for executive salary and benefits. If the organization can afford an executive, they can afford an interim executive. 

Why not just appoint a senior staff person to serve as an interim ED? Few senior staff are equipped with the skills and experience to take on this job. Even if they are, taking on the executive role may get in the way of their other job responsibilities and complicate their relationships with staff during the transition and after. If they are candidates for the executive position, they are being placed in a situation where they are unfairly “tested” as an executive before they have the full authority and while they are carrying the responsibilities of multiple jobs.

What about a board member filling in? While a board member may have intimate knowledge of the organization, s/he may not be a nonprofit professional. Additionally, many boards find it difficult to navigate the challenging dynamics created by having one of their own at the helm.

Using an experienced interim ED is increasingly becoming a best practice in the nonprofit community, and the pool of professional IEDs is growing. Funders and stakeholders can encourage this approach by recommending the practice to grantees and offering to help fund the position if needed. Executive sea changes can be unsettling and challenging, but they are a normal part of an organization’s life cycle, and having an experienced IED to help guide the organization during the transition can be invaluable.

Further explore best practices in nonprofit leadership and leadership transitions during the 2013 Fall Conference for Community Foundations.

Rachael Gibson is the President/CEO of Mosaica, a Washington DC-based multicultural capacity building organization that provides organizational development and evaluation support to nonprofits and foundations nationally. Mosaica convenes an active IED network in the Washington, DC region. This blog post was written on behalf of the network.

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