Interim executive directors are usually thought of as “those folks who hold down the fort” at nonprofits when boards expect a long gap between executives. However, not anyone can be an interim. You will want to hire or appoint someone who has executive experience. But what exactly do interim executive directors do, 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. Most interim executives were executive directors at one time in their lives. Interim executive directors really work to prepare the organization for the next executive director — to help make sure that there is a solid platform for success.
In other instances, they differ in crucial aspects. It is unusual for an interim executive director to conduct individual fundraising for the comparatively short time they are with the organization. An interim executive director’s role is to support the board and staff and to implement the overall fundraising plan.
In general, interims are there to maintain the organization, under the board’s direction, until the permanent leader is in place. However, not just anyone can be an interim. You will want to hire or appoint someone who has executive experience. If someone from outside the organization is not possible, ensure that any board member or staff member who is appointed to the position has no interest in the permanent job as their performance, decisions and so forth could be influenced by the fact that they are competing for the job. In fact, any interim should make a declaration that they will not seek the permanent position.
The interim role is a critical one. That person will be holding the period between the old leader and the one to be hired. Granted they will be doing so with the board, but the interim is the one who works closely with staff and needs to manage their natural uneasiness about change or their sadness in losing their leader. The interim should have experience in managing people during times of change and overall change-management experience in addition to executive experience.
They may assist in rectifying some situations at the board’s discretion or put out fires — but should not aim to make major changes. That said, every interim engagement is unique and the goals of the board for the interim period should be clarified with the interim, whose job will be to achieve those goals during the interim period. Clarity of role and goals between the board of directors, the interim, and key management staff is critical.
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 find a new leader. In many cases however, the organization would be better served by an outside expert. Here’s why:
- Efficient use of time. Hiring an interim executive director gives the organization the space it needs to reflect, organize a search process and prepare for the new ED.
- Stabilization. An interim executive director 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.
Sometimes a 'start-up' nonprofit will hire an interim executive director before they fully begin operations and aren’t quite ready to hire full-time staff yet. In other circumstances, boards just wanted to take a ‘breather’ between executive directors. Hiring an interim executive director gave the organization time to ask questions and strengthen systems.
You Want an Interim Executive Director. What Should You Know?
There are five essential questions — and answers — you should expect in your search for the right interim executive director:
- What are her/his qualifications? The interim executive director should have been an executive director or in senior management, and be able to exercise all the skills of an executive director.
- How long do you need them to stay? Interims tend to stay for 4 to 10 months, but there are rare cases where they stay for longer. Try to envision how much time your nonprofit needs to make a successful transition.
- If we work with a firm or a pool of consultants, do we have a choice of interim executive directors? Make sure the provider you are working with can give you 2-3 options to choose from.
- What is the usual process for the interim executive director to get settled? Interim executive directors will spend the first two 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 interim executive director will conduct a thorough operations analysis of the nonprofit’s needs and present it, along with a work plan, for the board’s review and approval.
- How much should I expect to pay an interim executive director? Nonprofit generally directly negotiate with the candidate for their time. The nonprofit can expect to pay between $60-120 per hour for a 20- to 28-hour week. At MissionWorks we charge a sliding scale depending on organization size from $1,500-4,000.
Interim executive directors arrive at difficult or transitional times and often help organizations make difficult choices. The goal of any interim executive director is to leave an organization in a better place than when we came.