Why Your Organization Needs an Interim Executive Director

In any nonprofit organization, the executive director plays a key role. The director is the conduit between the board and staff, the public face of the organization, the person who guides the direction of the organization, and much more. When a long-time director leaves, or when the organization has had multiple directors during a short period of time, the board should consider bringing in an interim executive director to strengthen the organization and facilitate the transition. An interim executive director gives the board time for a comprehensive search for the next executive director, since they don’t have to worry about hurrying to get leadership in place.

Too often, boards panic after a sudden departure, and hire someone too quickly without checking their background or qualifications, or a board member steps in temporarily, but lacks the time and skills to properly manage the organization. Just because a board member is familiar with the organization doesn’t mean they are a good fit for the job. Another temporary solution is found by promoting a current staff member for the short term, but that person will still have their own work to do, and won’t be able to give full attention to the new role. They may also be interested in applying for the position, which puts them in an awkward situation. Hiring an outside interim executive director mitigates these problems.

What is an interim executive director?

Most commonly, interims are people with past experience as executive directors who are retired or working as a nonprofit consultant. This experience lets them start working quickly on the issues the organization is facing, without needing to develop leadership skills. Interims work for the organization for an average of 4-8 months, and generally work about 30 hours per week. They are hired as employees, but don’t normally receive benefits due to the temporary nature of their position.

It is important that the interim executive director be someone who doesn’t have any direct involvement with the organization, and who is not a candidate for the permanent position. This allows them to bring unbiased opinions to their job, without being influenced by participation in past decisions. It also allows them to be much more direct and open with the board about problems, without worrying about offending anyone, since they have a limited term of employment with the organization.

What do interim executive directors do?

Initially, interims will focus on getting a strong sense of the current situation of the nonprofit, through talking to staff and board members, by reviewing the financials and contracts, and by looking at current programs and policies. From there, the interim can focus on working with the board to determine the priorities for moving forward, including what changes need to be made, and will then address those changes as much as possible during their tenure. The interim can also help the board determine what qualifications the next permanent executive director needs to have.

The interim serves as an important bridge between the past and the future, giving the organization, its staff, and its board, time to say their farewells to the past executive director, and take a close look at everything about the organization and whether changes need to be made. Since everyone knows the interim is only there temporarily, existing staff and board members can focus on the interim period as a time for change, but also look forward to welcoming the new executive director.

Finally, the interim can be an important resource to the new executive director, training that person on the organization, but also serving as a mentor, especially if the incoming executive director is new to their role.

How do you find an interim executive director?

Contact your local nonprofit association or ask nonprofit leaders in the area for recommendations. Often an interim is a past executive director who has retired but is still looking for new challenges. Don’t limit your search to people who have managed agencies in your field, but look more generally for those who have the skills to lead an organization. The particular subject knowledge of your organization can be managed by the staff, while the interim focuses on administrative and leadership tasks. Conduct an interview with the interim candidate to make sure they are a good fit for your organization, and make sure they can commit to the length of time your organization needs.

For more in-depth information on the entire interim executive director process, see this article from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Interested in hiring an interim director for your organization in Lincoln or Omaha, Nebraska? Let me bring my past experience as an executive director to your organization or refer you to an experienced interim. Please contact me at (402) 730-2532 or ingrid@ingridkirst.com to discuss the details.

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