Nonprofit A had a long-time executive director who resigned due to a health crisis.
Nonprofit B had an executive director who moved to another organization after giving only six weeks’ notice.
Nonprofit C had an executive director who was asked to resign by its board of directors.
Nonprofit D had a beloved executive director – the founder – who retired after three decades of service.
What do these nonprofits have in common?
Each organization would benefit from the services of an interim executive director. Not a board member doing double duty. Not a staff member temporarily filling two jobs. Instead, a professional interim E.D. brought in from the outside specifically for that purpose.
As I’ve written previously, bosses matter. Bosses matter for good or for ill. A great executive director is going to be missed. There may even be a sort of mourning period. A bad executive director leaves a lasting imprint, too. There is damage, and that damage cannot be fixed in a day.
When a nonprofit proceeds immediately to hiring, there isn’t time for either mourning or healing. The new E.D. begins the job in an environment of unfinished business. Whether it is the lingering reflection of a marvelous leader or the lasting impact of a toxic one, this organizational baggage creates a distinct handicap for the new E.D. It also reduces the likelihood that she will have a successful tenure.
In contrast, the act of hiring an outside interim executive director sends a clear message that this is a time of transition for the organization. A time to acknowledge feelings of grief, anger, or confusion. A time to assess the organization’s strengths and weaknesses and reflect on its needs for future leadership. A time to make difficult changes and fix glaring problems – and to establish processes for addressing less urgent ones.
In this way, an experienced outside interim “takes the hit” for the future executive director. The skillful interim is a “baggage collector.”
Of course, a board member or senior staffer could be called upon to serve as acting executive director. But few board members bring experience in nonprofit management – critical in a position that requires getting up to speed very quickly. Furthermore, success as an interim rides on getting honest and detailed information about the organization, and staff may be less likely to speak freely with someone who retains, or will return to, a place on the board.
A senior staff member asked to serve as acting E.D. will encounter a different set of challenges, starting with the difficulty of doing two jobs at once. Even more than a board member, a staffer lacks the independence to facilitate an objective assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. And then there is the issue of candidacy for the long-term position.
An acting E.D. who is not a candidate must contend with the emotional challenge of becoming the boss, and then subsequently deferring to a new boss. An acting E.D. who is a candidate must make the difficult decision to stay or go if someone else gets the job. In both situations, but especially the latter, an acting E.D. will find it far more difficult to “speak truth to power” with the organization’s board, than would an outside interim.
Actually, it’s hard to think of a scenario in which bringing in an outside interim E.D. would not be helpful. An outside interim can offer board and staff a safe zone to process thoughts and feelings and make difficult changes before moving on to welcome a new leader. Importantly, an outside interim never should be a candidate for the long-term job. By setting this boundary in advance, the interim E.D. will have freedom to speak honestly during the transition – and will find it satisfying to turn over the reins, with pride, when the assignment is done.