TREND | So, You're Hiring an Interim Executive Director, Part 1

publication date: Feb 7, 2024
author/source: Jane Garthson

First, congratulations! The use of interim executives is a growing trend in corporate and not-for-profits, and your board has taken a progressive step. However, Board oversight needs to be somewhat different in interim CEO or Executive Director (ED) situations than in permanent hires.

Doing it wrong

Way back in 1992, I hired an interim executive director shortly after joining a charity board (my first board). I had been volunteering but only learned what a mess the organization was in right after the annual general meeting. The board chair “hadn’t wanted to worry us.” The executive director position had been vacant for months, with no effort to recruit, and a power struggle combined with a lack of fundraising put an important community organization at risk of closing its doors within weeks. I thought we needed an experienced leader to get us through the crisis, and as the person who suggested it, I naturally became chair of the search committee.

Since we weren’t exactly an appealing organization and weren't sure of our future, it seemed prudent to find someone who only wanted the job for a short time. I’d never heard of an interim ED and there were no internet resources back then to help. Finding the person was easy; our contact at a major funder had just retired, lived nearby, and loved the charity’s work.

That’s a win, right?

Well, it didn't turn out that way. Some tough actions were needed, and we wanted an ED who cared more about the charity’s future than about being liked. But our interim ED soon realized that he loved this post-retirement, part-time work and shifted his focus to being asked to stay.

The money situation at the organization got better but the power struggles and inappropriate use of resources (a mild way of describing it) by a staff member got worse. Our interim ED talked the board into making his appointment permanent, and then stood by while directors on one side of the power struggle quit (including me, eventually) over a lack of action. The other side recruited like-minded people and he was pushed out of an organization that was—once again—in chaos.

The Starting Lesson

The lesson? State in advance that the Interim ED will not be allowed to seek the permanent role. Be explicit in the contract about when it ends (e.g., three weeks after the new hire starts). Professional interims (yes, it's an emerging profession) love their short-term challenges and want to keep moving on.

Contract wording like “is ineligible to apply” doesn’t prevent the board from proactively asking the interim ED to consider staying on, near the end of the contract. (Perhaps the ED who intended to return from leave had a change of circumstance and couldn’t.) But the expectation of leaving is critical to accomplishing what most needs to happen and boards can expect most interims to reject such an offer.

Note how different this is from an Acting appointment, where the person already works in the organization and has a role to go back to when a permanent executive is hired.

Based on my experience, Interim EDs are at their most effective when they:

  • Partner with a board that has a transformation mindset and expectation, not a status quo one;
  • Have a board willing to hire well rather than quickly for the permanent role;
  • Have training on, or experience with, interim executive work. If your new hire doesn't have either, make sure you enable paid time up-front for them to research the role and connect with other interim executives in the not-for-profit sector;
  • Never forget they have only a short time frame to meet success measures or reach milestones on major projects that will be carried forward by the permanent hire;
  • Understand that their role is to develop the conditions within the organization for success in its permanent hire (unless the Interim has been engaged for other purposes such as a wind-down);
  • Put ego aside; it's not about them (see above);
  • Have excellent listening, communication, strategy and analysis skills;
  • Have genuine empathy and humility, as well as the confidence to lead effectively; and
  • Have a peer support network and a self-care plan; the work can be very draining.

The learning curve goes straight up

You've probably found someone without much, if any, advance knowledge of the organization. And they’ve started on short notice because of a sudden vacancy. If your nonprofit’s situation involves someone more knowledgeable or with more time to prepare, consider yourself extremely fortunate.
Hint: You are more likely to be lucky if the Board has a good, up-to-date Executive Succession Plan in place.

It’s scary to give a new person immediate decision authority and avoid getting drawn in to operational issues. Yet, they must establish that authority quickly or they can’t be effective.

So, what can you do?

First, have a detailed onboarding plan. What information does the new person need to know right away? What can you tell them and give them to read on day one (or before, with compensation)? What time can directors spend reviewing the strategic plan and board agenda with them, item by item? Can you be readily available to them as decision issues arise where they need more context? Help them do their job; don't do it for them.Who can you introduce them to and in what order? Much of the time in their first few weeks is going to be spent building temporary but positive relationships with key employees along with board members, funders, partners, non-board volunteers, suppliers, and more. Which of these people is the chair going to take lead on for introductions, and who will take lead on other key folks? If there is a senior management team, the team members will manage introductions in their areas of responsibility. If there are few or no staff members, then other directors will need to step up even more.

In Part 2: More tips and considerations to hiring an interim ED.

Since 1992, Jane Garthson has dedicated her work and volunteering to creating better futures for our communities and organizations through values-based leadership and leadership services. Jane has served three times as Interim CEO or Executive Director, and on numerous boards including as Chair and as a regulatory Commissioner. She is a graduate of the Interim Executives Academy, and an executive coach for Interim and new Chairs, CEOs and Executive DirectorsJane is currently Secretary of the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust and on the Steering Committee of Seniors for Climate Action Now! (SCAN!) Toronto. Contact her,

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