Interim Executive Director

“…those groups that do use an interim ED emerge (from transition) stronger, more financially sound, and with high levels of optimism about the future impact of their agency services.”
Tim Wolfred
CompassPoint Nonprofit Services

Interim Executive Director
An interim executive director (IED) is often thought of as a caretaker role during an in-between time, when, in fact, it is much more than that. An IED is a skilled manager that steps in to effectively run an organization usually for up to four to eight months helping board and staff confront financial, program, and capacity issues as they lay the groundwork for the next leader’s success.

Use of an IED is a capacity-building strategy for nonprofits going through leadership change. Organizations that choose to use an IED tend to come through the transition with healthier finances, stronger infrastructure and a more optimistic outlook on the future.

But that is rarely the case at the beginning of a leadership change.

Even in the best run nonprofits, there is a constant struggle to fund both programs and infrastructure - and in almost every organization, client services come first. During a leadership change, board members and staff are not only faced with the emotions surrounding the departing ED, they may also have to deal with accounting systems that may not be up to date, personnel files that have not been attended to, and reports that need to be done.

A leadership change will also cause some donors and volunteers to step back and wait for the transition to play out before recommitting to the organization.

It is the responsibility of the IED to step into unsettled nonprofits and bring calm and organization to the transition process. The IED does this by honoring the accomplishments of the departing executive, carefully listening to the thoughts of all interested parties, and addressing operational issues with patience and understanding. The IED also connects with funders and volunteers letting them know that there will be no loss of momentum and invites their support in creating the nonprofit’s future.

An interim executive brings many benefits to a nonprofit in transition.

An outside IED brings objectivity to the organization that a fill-in board member or staff person cannot. The IED is free to speak truthfully to board and staff about what is working well within the organization, and what is not working well.

The IED can often address or begin to address old problems, creating a stronger organizational platform for the incoming leader and freeing the new ED to focus on the future.

Working in tandem with a Transition consultant, the IED can lead discussions about the former ED’s legacy and achievements, what needs to be maintained, and what needs to be done to pave the way for the next ED. This is an essential part of the “letting go” process for both staff and board members. This is especially helpful if the departing executive is the founder of the organization or has had a long tenure. The IED allows time for board and staff to “let go” of the old, established ways of doing things.

Most importantly, the IED gives the board time to recruit a strong group of ED candidates. There is no panic to fill the executive’s seat. Instead, thoughtful input about the current status and future direction of the organization will lead to a new ED who can take the organization into the board’s and staff’s preferred future.

In addition, while working with the board, the interim manager models an appropriate and balanced relationship between the executive and the board and chair. This is especially important in paving the way for the incoming executive to have a healthy and balanced role with the board.

Operationally, the IED sets specific goals for his or her tenure with the board. First, the finances of the nonprofit get immediate attention. It is the area most likely to yield unexpected difficulties.

The IED supports the management team through group and one-on-one sessions in which achievements, problems, and management styles are discussed. In larger organizations, the management team holds similar discussions with their staff.

The IED also connects quickly with government and foundation supporters. Frequent, honest communication with this group is essential to draw them into the transition process and engage them in capacity building.

The collaborative roles of Transition Consultant and Interim Executive Director
Organizations going through a leadership change are faced with some significant challenges.

There is an immediate need to keep the organization running – providing services to clients, managing the finances, supporting the management team, and maintaining key relationships with funders, and volunteers. It is the responsibility of the Interim Executive Director to upgrade internal systems and make sure the nonprofit is in good working order when the new ED arrives.

So the interim ED, coordinating closely with the transition consultant, serves as capacity builder, communicator, and transition agent supporting the board and transition committee.

Leadership change also presents an opportunity for the board and staff to step back and look carefully at what is working well within the organization, and what needs to be improved. It is a moment to reflect on the mission and goals of the organization, and a chance to adjust the nonprofit’s vision in ways that will allow it to take advantage of new opportunities. It is the responsibility of the Transition Consultant to oversee the entire transition process, set the stage for organizational growth, and make sure the new executive has a solid track to run on when he or she arrives.

The IED deals with the NOW. The TC deals with the FUTURE. Working together, the IED and the TC work with the board to shape the organization’s infrastructure, vision, and programs to achieve the mission of the nonprofit, and create an environment in which the new executive director, and, therefore, the organization is likely to succeed.
© Leadership Transitions 2020
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