Interim leadership: blessing or curse?

One of the biggest changes within the life of a nonprofit is the change in leadership. In most cases this will be accompanied by a period of transition with an interim leader. The position is short-term and in most cases temporary. We have seen interims who serve as placeholders or caretakers. Others are innovators. Some are turn-around leaders. Others are brought in explicitly to “clean house.” The experience can be tumultuous, or a “breath of fresh air.” What actually happens within an organization during this time is highly contingent upon the actions of the board, the culture of the organization, and the person who serves as the interim leader. Finally, the terms under which the prior leader left will also impact how the organization transitions into the future. In all cases it will be a change.

Questions for board members.

What are you looking for the interim leader to accomplish? Will you ask her to retain talented employees and stop the trend of employee resignations that can accompany the departure of a president or CEO? Do you need her to reduce the number of employees or change the employee composition to better respond to market needs? Do you expect the interim to sustain the current level of fundraising? Increase fundraising? Do you need to decrease costs; increase services; implement new technology; sustain current operations; build new partnerships? The expectations need to be clearly established and communicated.

As a board you may need to be more actively involved in matters related to strategic directions, fundraising, policy and finances. Here is the question: are you prepared – individually and collectively – to support the interim leader you hire?

Questions for interim leaders.

If you are asked to serve as an interim you may already be affiliated with the organization or institution as a board member or employee. You may have prior experience as an executive, or you may possess a specific skill set that the nonprofit needs at this point in time. It’s also possible that you are an experienced interim leader .In all cases you need to ask questions and gather information before you accept or decline. You will want to learn the challenges facing the organization, its history and vision for the future. Key things to ask about are the strategic plan and the extent to which it is being implementing; what is the community’s perception of and relationship to the organization; is the nonprofit looking to grow, consolidate, transform or innovate; and what is the projected duration of the position? You’ll need to ask about the organization’s current and projected finances and who will lead fundraising; you’ll want to know who you can depend upon to introduce you throughout the community; and you need to know who will be your friends and advocates and who may be working against you.

Whether you are hiring an interim leader or serving as one, having clear expectations can help reduce the stress that accompanies change. Keep the lines of communication open and know that this is a transition, not necessarily a new normal.

Copyright 2017 – Mel and Pearl Shaw

Mel and Pearl Shaw are authors of four books on fundraising available on For help growing your fundraising visit or call (901) 522-8727.

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