Hiring an Interim Executive Director Can be a Stabilizing Force for Your Nonprofit

by | Apr 4, 2024 | Featured Nonprofits

No one knew what to do.

The executive director of Sally’s favorite nonprofit just told her that he would be resigning and moving to Connecticut to accept a leadership position with another organization. He would be leaving within 30 days.

Sally immediately called each of her 15 fellow board members to tell them the disappointing news.

“I know I’m the board president,” Sally said. “But I’ve never conducted a search and I don’t know what to do about this.” No one else knew either.

They all agreed they didn’t want to hire someone in haste. One of the board members suggested they look for an interim executive director.

They discovered that hiring someone on a temporary basis would give them time to methodically search for candidates to fill the permanent role with a suitable leader.

An interim executive director can be a stabilizing force.

In the dynamic landscape of nonprofit organizations, leadership transitions are inevitable. Whether due to planned departures, unexpected vacancies or periods of organizational restructuring, the need for interim leadership arises to maintain continuity, stability and momentum. Enter the interim executive director—a seasoned professional who steps into the role temporarily to guide the organization through periods of transition.

An interim executive director serves as a reassuring force during times of leadership transition, providing essential continuity and leadership while the organization navigates changes. Unlike a permanent executive director, whose focus may be on long-term strategic planning and vision implementation, an interim leader prioritizes immediate needs, operational strength and stakeholder engagement.

Key responsibilities of an interim executive director provide for steady momentum.


>>Assessment and Stewardship.

Upon assuming the role, the interim executive director conducts a comprehensive assessment of the organization’s strengths, challenges and opportunities. This includes reviewing financials, programs, staff dynamics and stakeholder relationships to identify areas for improvement and potential risks.

>>Strategic Guidance.

While maintaining day-to-day operations, the interim leader provides strategic guidance to ensure the organization stays on course with its mission and goals. They may assist in refining strategic plans, setting short-term objectives and addressing emerging priorities to sustain organizational momentum.

>>Staff Support and Development.

Interim executive directors play a vital role in supporting and empowering staff members during times of transition. By fostering open communication, providing mentorship and addressing concerns proactively, they help maintain positive morale and productivity within the organization.

>>Board Relations.

Interim leaders collaborate closely with the board of directors to facilitate a smooth transition and uphold governance standards. This includes providing regular updates, soliciting input on key decisions and assisting in the search process for a permanent executive director, if applicable.

>>External Relations and Fundraising.

Maintaining positive relationships with donors, partners and community stakeholders is essential for organizational sustainability. Interim executive directors often play a role in representing the organization externally, engaging with supporters and supporting fundraising efforts to ensure financial stability.

Look for the right attributes in your interim executive director.

It takes a special person to successfully lead your organization during a time of transition. It is often someone who is coming out of retirement to provide this important service and it should always be someone who has experience serving as an executive director. Korn Ferry, a noted expert in searches for nonprofit executive directors, lists the following as important traits to look for in an interim executive director.

>>Leading Teams.

A good interim director or manager has a passion for leading teams. They’re adept at setting a new strategic direction, uniting people around it, creating a detailed plan to bring it to life, executing the plan and measuring the results.

>>Emotional Intelligence.

As defined by Harvard Business School, this is “an individual’s ability to recognize and manage emotions in themselves and others.” Strong emotional intelligence impacts the ability to set a strategic vision, communicate it effectively, confidently make decisions, and bring out the best in others.

>>Strategic Thinking.

A great interim director is driven by their passion for results. Since they’re only with your company for a fixed period, everything they do focuses on generating results quickly and efficiently.

>>Clear Communication.

Interim talent often comes on board during periods of change. Their ability to reinforce the company’s message, values and vision through clear, confident communication is paramount. Effective communication keeps teams aligned and focused on key objectives. Communication is a two-way process: the best interim managers are active listeners, ensuring employees feel heard and that their feedback is integrated.

>>Confident Decision-Making.

Anyone can share ideas, but it takes a special kind of enterprise leader to make the decisions that lead to positive results — and to do so with confidence.

>> Brings Out the Best in Others.

Effective interim managers do not dictate orders or micromanage. They’re skilled at empowering employees to excel in their roles, improving overall team performance. By helping everyone on the team become better, they’ll leave your company in strong, capable hands once their tenure is complete.

Sally and her board hired a great interim executive director.

Sally’s nonprofit board formed an ad hoc committee to find and hire a competent temporary manager to keep the organization strong and functioning smoothly while they conducted an executive search.

“We can all breathe a sigh of relief,” Sally told her board. “Now that we have a trustworthy leader to hold the fort down, we can conduct a proper search to identify our next executive director.”