- Patricia A. Smith
When there is a sudden departure of an executive director,
regardless of whether it was a resignation or termination, the
board faces many crucial decisions. Who will oversee operations
until a replacement is hired? Which approach will be least
disruptive in terms of services and operations? How will the
expenses of the transition and search be funded? Can this period
be used to strengthen the organization and build capacity?
When faced with this dilemma, boards often turn to senior staff
members who may already be overextended but are committed to the
organization and willing to help in the short term. There is a
certain comfort level, the staff person is a known entity and
can assume responsibility quickly. Especially for cash strapped
organizations, there is also a financial savings with this
An alternative is to find an enthusiastic board member with the
requisite level of management experience. While the cost savings
may be negligible, there is the comfort level and dealing with a
known entity factors that makes this an appealing choice for
many boards. However, depending on the board composition,
finding a member who is available and possesses the appropriate
skill set may be problematic.
With the increasing availability of experienced nonprofit
management consultants, boards now have a third choice. They can
hire an independent professional to help lead them through the
transition and in-between state. They can turn this occasion
into an opportunity to strengthen and enhance the organization
and help ensure the success of the next director.
CompassPoint Nonprofit Services of San Francisco has
published a series of monographs on the topic of executive
transitions and executive transition management (ETM) and in its
2005 monograph Interim Executive Directors: the Power in the
Middle, it indicates that the transition process can
“provide potent, pivotal moments, opportunities to update an
organization’s strategic direction and implement needed capacity
In the above referenced monograph by Tim Wolfred, he
states, “interim EDs are not simply board members or staff who
sit in the executive director’s seat for a few weeks or months
until a new director is found. Interim EDs are highly skilled
managers who temporarily take the helm of an organization (four
to eight months on average), help the board and staff address
important systems and capacity issues, and lay the groundwork
for the permanent leader’s success.”
While I concur with the CompassPoint definitions and premises,
this article is based on personal observations and lessons
learned from serving as interim director on five different
My experiences were with very different organizations in terms
of budget, program offerings, financial health, number and
calibre of staff and stakeholders, but there were some common
In every instance but one, the former director had been
terminated. This appeared to be a slow and painful process for
the volunteers. It generally took one or two board members with
the courage to force the board to assess the situation
critically and take decisive action.
While board members knew things were not quite right in the
organization, they did not fully comprehend the depth and extent
of the disarray.
Staff were anxious, concerned about the future of the
organization and their own job security. Additionally, old
relationships, alliances and work patterns were disrupted,
adding to the staff’s anxiety.
Funders were generally relieved that the board had taken action
and were supportive of the interim process. When funds were
requested for executive transition, they were approved.
There were always programs that needed to be strengthened and
enhanced or eliminated. This often meant raising the bar or
Generally operational systems were non-existent and filing and
tracking were haphazard.
In addition to these common themes, each organization had its
own culture, set of issues and unique challenges. In one
organization there were 35 placed workers (social services
recipients who had to work to be eligible for benefits) who had
no one supervising them. They would sign in and then leave. In
another agency, required charities registration filings and fees
had not been submitted. A third had shelves full of out-of-date
materials, an unlimited inventory of supplies, clutter
throughout the office and intense resistance to change of any
An effective interim director is one part investigator, one part
healer, one part visionary, one part financial forensics expert,
and, when necessary, one part junk yard dog. A board member for
one of the agencies where I served as interim spelled out why
junk yard dog qualities were necessary. The organization was
overrun with clients, theft was rampant and staff apathetic.
They needed someone who was tenacious and firm. The first two
weeks at that organization remain a blur of people, problems,
disarray, disbelief, resistance, locks and keys.
My first day also coincided with the first day of summer
camp for 100 low-income inner city children. While staff had
been hired by the former director, there had been no training,
planning or purchase of any supplies. I literally wanted to run
away from the whole situation. What kept me showing up every day
was that I was an honourable person and a professional with a
signed contract. It was hands down the most challenging
experience of my professional life. Yet when I see where the
agency is today and think about my role in helping it get there,
there is an unparalleled sense of pride and accomplishment.
As an interim, it is necessary to assess the organization
quickly, so extensive management experience is a must. A more
than passing acquaintance with human resources is also
necessary, since staff terminations and hiring will most likely
occur during your tenure. Grant writing, budget preparation and
review are also expected of interims.
It is also anticipated that the interim will be able to interact
with staff, volunteers, funders, suppliers and other
stakeholders, while negotiating favourable contracts and keeping
the organization’s programs and events constantly in the public
eye. An understanding of systems, internal controls and
standards of excellence for nonprofits ensures that there will
be some benchmarks against which to measure the organization.
All the skills necessary to be an effective ED are required of
an interim – it is just that everything happens in a more
compressed time period.
Generally, an interim assignment will last for four to eight
months. In my experience there are three distinct periods –
assessment, visioning and resolution. In the assessment phase, I
would interview staff, board and funders, read contracts, board
and staff minutes, audit reports, recent correspondence and
other significant paperwork. This is also a period of asking
questions and observing relationships, communication patterns,
Boards may not want to hear your initial assessment because
as you uncover the realities, they may feel some guilt. One
board member told me how angry and upset she was with my initial
report – it contained truths she wasn’t ready to hear.
The second phase is visioning and includes a board planning
retreat, a review of the assessment, and lengthy discussion
about the desired future of the organization. Qualities,
characteristics and skills necessary in a new director are
examined and a thorough review of all programs and services is
completed. Significant decisions are made at this time and a
plan for the future is put in place.
It can be a long dusty road between the current state of affairs
and the board’s vision for the future, so often intermediate
steps need to be taken. This is the time when programs will
either be strengthened or eliminated and new systems will be
developed. It’s all about getting the organization in prime
shape so that when a new director is hired, he or she can hit
the ground running.
The third phase, which I call resolution, is about implementing
decisions made at the planning retreat, forming the search
committee and beginning the search process. Depending on the
calibre of applicants, this can be a time of euphoria or
anguish. The search process can be local, regional or national
and can include everything from telephone interviews to on-site
presentations by candidates. The role of the interim is to
facilitate a successful search, and then help the selected
candidate to transition into his or her new role.
Of the myriad lessons I have learned in my various
experiences as an interim director, those most relevant are:
Board members may disengage once you are hired. They are still
recovering from the trauma of terminating the former director
and know they must be intimately involved in the hiring of the
new director. So now that a professional interim is in place,
they may want to opt out for a while.
Know that on a daily basis there will be challenges and
surprises – the most competent staff person may resign to take a
job that’s a better fit with her family responsibilities; the
food bank may threaten to cut off your monthly allotment because
the former director is the only person authorized to order; the
agency credit cards may be pulled because the retiring
accountant guaranteed them using her credit history, or the
landlord may triple the rent.
While your tenure is short term, your role is not that of a
place holder. Think of yourself as a catalyst for organizational
change with a goal of leaving the organization much stronger
than you found it.
Staff may be guarded and try to undermine you. It’s a bonus if
you find a kindred spirit in the organization. Remember – you
are not there to make friends but to help strengthen the
organization. Help staff, especially, to understand that things
will continue to be different and if they are going to have a
future with the organization, they need to change and adapt to
where the organization is going.
When negotiating a contract to serve as interim, get as much
information as you can and talk to as many board and staff as
possible. In the contract, lay out the deliverables, but always
include a clause that if additional problems/issues that were
not apparent at the outset are uncovered, a separate contract
and fee may need to be negotiated.
Serving as an interim is not something that should be entered
into lightly, nor is it for the inexperienced or novice
consultant. An effective interim can make significant
contributions to the agency served and ultimately to the people
served by the agency.
There is much more to serving successfully as an interim than
can be included in this brief article. For those interested in
learning more, both CompassPoint and Support Center for
Nonprofit Management offer specialized transition training
on a yearly basis. A CompassPoint article was referenced above;
I also recommend Making the Most of the Internal Interim
Directorship, by Robert I. Goler for the New York:
Support Center for Nonprofit Management, 2006.
For further information:
Patricia Smith is President of Management Strategies, 3067
Donelson Rd., Jamestown NY 14701-9528,
article originally appeared in the Nonprofit Boards and
Governance Review from Charity Channel,