The Power of an Interim Executive Director

When a nonprofit organization experiences a leadership transition, hiring an interim executive director can be the most logical and positive action its board can take.

Leadership change is an increasingly common aspect of nonprofit organizational life. Multiple studies reinforce the impending turnover of top leadership in the nonprofit sector, due in great part to the aging and retiring boomer population. It’s not a matter of if, but when the change is coming. When your organization experiences this transition, research and practice suggests that groups that plan well and use a skilled interim executive director, emerge stronger, more fiscally sound, and with higher levels of optimism about the future impact of their programs and services.

Leadership transition is a period commonly marked with emotion, tension, and stress. Internally, staff and board are in the midst of separating from the previous executive, and the departing director is in an in-between state and can be confused about how much influence he or she wants or should have on the agency’s future. If the director’s departure is forced, emotions may be particularly high.

Externally, some funders, donors, and volunteers will take a “wait and see” approach before becoming involved and investing in the organization. This can create strain between needs and resources, further taxing administrative systems.

A highly skilled interim executive director temporarily takes the helm of an organization, helps the board and staff address important systems and capacity issues, and lays the groundwork for the following leader’s success. This leader:

–       Serves as a bridge, giving the board ample time to conduct a thoughtful search process and managing the day-to-day executive responsibilities that include: conducting an objective organizational review, leading anxious staff, reassuring wary funders, and keeping finances and revenue generation on track.

–       Tackles unique challenges related to the transition, building on strengths and addressing particular vulnerabilities.

–       Helps the board clarify its vision and future leadership needs.

–       Models excellence in management and leadership.

–       Mentors the new executive director once appointed.


When considering hiring an interim executive director for your organization:

–       Begin with the end in mind. Your board should determine what it wants and needs and what is most critical to success over the next few months.

–       Identify urgent issues or challenges presently facing your organization.

–       Review the current executive director’s job description, determine priorities for the transition period, and draft an Interim job description.

–       Seek an interim executive director with solid management experience and a transition skillset. This takes precedence over familiarity with your organization or industry.

–       Consider that the assignment is both temporary (four-eight months) and part-time (20 – 25 hours/week) and that the individual should not be a candidate for the full-time position.

–       Realize that, due to the unique demands of the role, interim executives are almost always paid higher on an hourly basis than the agency’s permanent executive (although, most interims are part-time and do not receive normal agency benefits).

–       Tap local resources for potential candidates, such as area college nonprofit degree programs, consultants serving the nonprofit sector, industry sector affinity groups, and nonprofit consortiums.

There is great power and potential in this “neutral zone” – the space after the former director leaves and the new leader begins. The organization is more open to change than usual and poised to leverage the heightened opportunity. Systems and culture become a bit “unglued” and can be put back together in new and exciting ways that leave the nonprofit stronger and more sustainable.