When Your Nonprofit Might Need an Interim Executive Director (And the Questions You Should Ask First)

Interim executive directors (interim EDs for short) are usually thought of as “those folks who hold down the fort” at nonprofits when boards expect a long gap between executives.

Interim executive directors (interim EDs for short) are usually thought of as “those folks who hold down the fort” at nonprofits when boards expect a long gap between executives.

But what do interim EDs do, exactly, and how do you know when – and if – your nonprofit needs one? If you do need one, how do you choose the best one?

They’re Different. They’re the Same.

Interim executive directors have many characteristics and tasks in common with permanent executive directors. In some instances they don’t. Most interim EDs were executive directors at one time in their lives.

“The interim EDs we recruit for the Executive Transitions Program [ETP] are able to do everything an executive director can do,” says Hez Norton, TSNE MissionWorks’s executive transitions program manager. “They bring the knowledge of organizational dynamics, the operations skills and the art of management to the table.”

Executive Transition Program interim directors, Hez reports, oversee budgets, supervise staff, manage programs and improve operational systems – all with an in-depth understanding of transition issues in nonprofit organizations.

“Interim EDs really work to prepare the organization for the new executive director – to help make sure that the new ED will have success,” Hez adds.

On the other hand, it is unusual for an interim executive director to conduct individual fundraising for the comparatively short time he or she is with the organization. An interim ED will also to be the public face of the group. The interim ED’s role is to support the board and staff and to implement the overall fund-raising plan.

In the ETP model, the interim ED is not involved in the search for the new executive director.

When Should You Have an Interim Executive Director?

Sometimes a senior staff person or even a board member can step temporarily into the role of executive director until the nonprofit can hire a new CEO.

But in many cases, the organization would be better served by an outside expert. Here’s why:

  • Efficient use of time. Hiring an interim ED gives the organization the space it needs to reflect, organize a search process and prepare for the new ED.
  • Stabilization. An interim ED can help to provide stability to an organization in turmoil.
  • Objectivity when most needed. The nonprofit wants a strong, clear, unbiased, internal operations analysis.
  • Staff is already overworked. Oftentimes, one or more of the staff is applying for the position.
  • Board/staff separation is already confused. This is especially true among small nonprofits where board volunteers may double as staff already.
  • Objectivity (revisited). An outside person may be able to better handle staff evaluations and dismissals than peer staff or board members.

Hez adds, “Sometimes a ‘start-up’ nonprofit will hire an interim ED before they fully begin operations and aren’t quite ready to hire full-time staff yet. I’ve seen other circumstances where boards just wanted to take a ‘breather’ between EDs. Hiring an interim ED gave the organization time to ask questions, strengthen systems and get ready for the new ED.”

You Want an Interim Executive Director; What Should You Know?

Hez Norton suggests five essential questions – and answers – you should expect in your search for the right interim ED.

  1. What are her/his qualifications? The interim ED should have been an executive director or in senior management, and be able to exercise all the skills of an executive director.
  2. How long will they stay? As short as one month, in Hez’ experience, though that is rare, and for as long as two years in another case, also rare. Expect 4 to 10 months -- as long as your nonprofit organization needs -- to make a successful transition.
  3. If we work through TSNE’s Executive Transitions Program, do we have a choice of interim EDs? Yes. At ETP, for example, Hez usually sends 2 or 3 candidates for the nonprofit to interview.
  4. What is the usual process for the interim ED to get settled? For ETP, Hez says the interim ED will spend the first 2 weeks interviewing the staff, meeting with the executive committee of the board, and deeply investigating the finances. If the placement is expected to last several months, the ETP interim ED will conduct a 45-day operations analysis of the nonprofit’s organizational needs and present it, along with a work plan, for the board’s review and approval.
  5. How much should I expect to pay an interim ED? Again, speaking only for ETP, Hez notes that the nonprofit directly negotiates with the candidate for their time. The nonprofit can expect to pay between $60 - 100 per hour for a 20- to 28-hour week. ETP also charges a placement fee of $1,500 if you work with an ETP transition consultant for the ED transition/search process, or $2,500 - 3,500 (on a sliding scale) if you don't. ETP’s interim EDs receive ongoing support from TSNE and from their interim ED colleagues at TSNE.

Who Was That Masked Man?

Norton, who has been an interim ED, laughs when asked if they are seen as “Lone Rangers” who leave “silver bullets” behind.

“Not really. Interim EDs arrive at difficult times and often help organizations make difficult choices. It’s not about popularity contests. Our goal is to leave an organization in a better place than when we came and to really prepare the new ED for success. We have a commitment to supporting nonprofits, and we like the challenge, but you can’t really have an ego in this field!”

Visit TSNE MissionWorks’s Executive Transitions Program for more information about interim executive directors.

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