Click here to see what our Flight Plan Thought Leaders have been saying
Click the Articles tab below to see the most recent postings from our Nonprofit Flight Crew

Making the Most of a Leadership Transition: Building Capacity in the Interim

By Julie Micou Cerf and Roxanne Greenstein

The departure of an Executive Director or Development Director need not be traumatic for the nonprofit organization and its board, staff and donors. For many nonprofit boards, an interim executive offers an approach to building capacity during this leadership transition. The board hires a seasoned professional on an interim basis, allowing the time necessary to conduct a thorough search for the next permanent leader, instead of rushing to hire a permanent employee. Because interim executives are not candidates for any permanent positions, they are at liberty to express objective or controversial perspectives that may improve performance and build organizational capacity. Usually interim executive or development director assignments last between six months and one year.

Some boards are eager to recruit senior executives with traits that are very similar to the former leader. Like rebound relationships after a divorce, these hires are frequently short-lived. Interim senior executives can save an organization money and heartache by providing time to carefully assess the new job descriptions, characteristics and skill sets, which, in the current time frame, may be quite different from the qualities that worked well in the past.

Because prior experience has exposed interim executives to many scenarios, they can quickly identify fresh approaches to management or fundraising that bring rapid results and may improve staff morale. Similarly, interim leaders are prepared to make tough decisions, such as personnel changes, which permanent staff might have been avoiding.

Interim leaders will work to reengage constituents, particularly donors. Clear and thoughtful communication about transition usually comforts institutional donors. It may often result in special new grants or partnerships to support the agency’s transition to permanent leadership.

After a long-standing executive director or director of development leaves the nonprofit, the interim period provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate methods of program delivery or fundraising. “We’ve always done it this way” may no longer be the optimal approach. When it makes sense, key staff can be empowered to innovate and make specific program changes that they’ve always wanted to implement.

Perhaps most crucially, the interim period is a pause or re-set moment to assess how well the board is fulfilling its fiduciary and oversight duties. Some board members may have an allegiance to the former leader and realize they no longer feel as connected to the nonprofit. For other board members, who participate in the search process for a new leader, this may be the catalyst that engages them in the group more than in the past. The interim period also provides a chance for an accurate assessment of the agency’s true financial condition, something that not all board members might comprehend.

For donors, staff, board and others close to the nonprofit, the interim period can be a pivotal moment of transformation. Suboptimal programs or poorly performing staff can be shed, the mission can be renewed, and the board can be reinvigorated. The new, permanent Executive Director or Development Director will enter the picture with a fresh, strong start.

Julie Micou Cerf specializes in interim executive director assignments for nonprofits in the New York metropolitan area.  Roxanne Greenstein is Principal of Greenstein Consulting, Inc., which provides fundraising and board development counsel, as well as interim development director services.