The "Unintentional Interim" - Why Your Nonprofit Needs an Interim Executive Director

02/22/2017 8:46 PM | Laura Stokes-Gray

By: Laura Stokes-Gray, Stokes-Gray Consulting
Bridging The Gap

During my 20 years serving the third sector, four as a CEO and more than 16 as a consultant, I have seen dozens of nonprofits struggle with a leadership transition. The departure of a chief executive, especially if unanticipated, can result in a lack of momentum, direction, and stability. Staff morale is likely to plummet, funders and partners may be inclined to withdraw support, and critical services and community outreach efforts could be impaired. Unfortunately, there is often a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the board of directors, with some boards experiencing an outright sense of panic.

The worst strategy is to be in a hurry. Rather than taking the time to evaluate the organization's priorities and complete a thoughtful search for a new executive director, many boards rush ahead to get a warm body to fill the vacancy. Sometimes the board chair decides to fill in on a temporary basis, which is a remarkably bad idea for many reasons. Another approach is to promote the second in command, which might be the CFO, COO, or program officer. The finance or HR person might be very good at their respective jobs, but may be a fish out of water as the CEO. Expecting a senior staffer to take on the additional role of "Acting Executive Director" places an undue burden on an already stressed individual. Asking someone to double up and work 50 or more hours a week just isn't wise. Even with a temporary bump in salary, resentment is liable to build. I've seen board members hire friends, pay unscrupulous search firms or staffing agencies to find a likely unqualified candidate in record time (the principled ones won't comply), or try to do an unassisted search with little or no plan or focus. The person who winds up in the chief executive's chair under any of these circumstances is what we call the "Unintentional Interim".

The promotion from within, the board member acquaintance in need of a job, or the poorly interviewed and vetted candidate almost invariably fail. The cycle starts again and the door keeps revolving. I remember one nonprofit who had four executive directors in three years. It was no surprise, after several donors pulled out, that the organization closed its doors for good.

Some nonprofits choose to leave the position vacant, on occasion for as long as a year, with the misguided objective of saving money. Then, predictably, entropy moves from order to chaos. Turns out it wasn't such a great idea, after all. To quote the poet Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". Laying low and hoping things will just "work out" usually isn't the best strategy, either.

What is the best strategy? How can a nonprofit safeguard and even improve its current operations and service delivery while taking the time required to conduct a thorough search for effective new leadership? A professional Interim Executive Director. An experienced nonprofit consultant with advanced training in transition management. Hiring an Interim ED creates the time and space a board of directors needs to recruit the best candidate for permanent leadership. It also gives an organization the opportunity to step back and reassess its mission and grasp the bigger picture. Using a qualified Interim ED ensures uninterrupted workflow and continuity for programs and services, stabilizes relationships with key funders, keeps revenue streams on track, creates a calm and morale-building atmosphere for staff, and bridges the gap with an unbiased senior leader who specializes in managing extraordinary and difficult situations. A change agent who removes the burden of a steep learning curve or impending crisis from the new permanent ED, giving that person the ability to hit the ground running.

When should a nonprofit consider using an Interim ED? The unexpected exit of an Executive Director would seem to require an Interim. The departure of a longtime or founding leader and/or the lack of an identified or prepared successor would also call for professional interim leadership. Not every nonprofit needs an Interim ED. Some executives announce their retirements well in advance. Some nonprofit boards have taken the initiative to put a succession plan in place. Some nonprofits are so extraordinarily well-run that they may function like a well-oiled machine, though even in that case, an Interim would help keep it that way.

How long do Interim ED engagements typically last? Engagements usually run 4-12 months with a 24-40 hour per week on-site commitment. The schedule depends on the complexity of the situation and assignment, and may increase or decrease as appropriate. It should be noted that Interim EDs are never to be considered a candidate for the permanent position. The success of the Interim largely depends on their ability to remain unbiased.

Can my nonprofit afford an Interim ED? Can you afford to hobble along on a wing and a prayer? Compensation to Interim EDs is usually in line with what you would pay a permanent ED. If your current financial situation is holding you back, consider approaching your key funders for assistance. Those who have invested in your organization want you to succeed. This is not an unusual request.

If your nonprofit is facing a leadership transition, don't struggle unnecessarily. Consider engaging a professional Interim ED. The health and well-being of your nonprofit is at stake.

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