What is an Interim Executive Director and Why Would You Want One?

What is an Interim Executive Director and Why Would You Want One?

The concept of an Interim Executive Director (ED) isn’t well-known among nonprofit organizations…yet. But, it’s becoming more mainstream and for many good business reasons.

On average, it takes a Board of Directors 9 months to recruit a new Executive Director. By the time they are on-boarded and contributing, a year may have passed since the departure of the prior nonprofit leader.

While nonprofit board members may step up to “mind the gap,” the truth is that stakeholders — employees, partners, and funders — can lose confidence in your organization during this leadership transition and key employees may leave.

Organizing payroll, developing a budget and/or managing human resources may keep the lights on, but without someone filling the executive director role during the transition period, your organization can be harmed and stymied while the Board is focused on the executive search for a new ED.

What is an Interim Executive Director?

An interim Executive Director, sometimes called an interim CEO, is not a consultant, but rather a seasoned business executive who can provide hands-on and impact leadership during an executive transition. The interim nonprofit Executive Director (ED) works for the Board of Directors and runs the organization for a specific period of time – usually 6 months to 15 months.

Quite often, the interim will be more experienced than the new leader who will be hired to fill the role on an ongoing basis. Most importantly, the interim shares those years of experience to help the Board chair assess the current situation. The result is a clear and shared vision of what the organization needs in its next permanent leader.

Why Hire an Interim ED?

Seasoned interim leadership can bring a fresh perspective to the organization. Interim leaders can help with strategic planning and fundraising, and prepare the business to ensure the success of the next full-time leader.

Your interim ED may not be an expert in your specific line of business or program focus. They will rely on the staff members already working with you for that expertise. Instead, the interim ED will focus on executive leadership transition, keeping the revenue coming in, and making sure that the organization moves forward without a hitch.

Helping the Board’s executive committee prepare for the next phase of the organization is often part of the brief. The job description also may include staying on as interim management or even a part-time ED for a time to mentor the new full-time leader.

An Interim Executive Director Job Should Not Be a Try-Out for Full-Time ED

Some people may apply to be the interim Executive Director as a way of installing themselves as the permanent ED. I can assure you that some Board members are guilty of this sleight of hand!

Nothing is more awkward than having to “fire” a Board member who volunteers to be the interim and then won’t give up the seat.

How do you guard against that? By choosing a professional interim ED and signing a contract so the assignment is, by definition, temporary.

How Do You Hire an Interim ED?

Just as you would for any interim executive, write a job outline that spells out the exact expectations for the assignment, including the decision-making authority, the accountabilities, and the length of the assignment.

An interim will often have more focused responsibilities than the permanent leader. With a limited tenure, be very clear on expectations.

Consider contracting with a professional firm that matches organizations with an experienced and qualified interim executive director, such as InterimExecs, which can have an executive on the ground in a matter of days.

Plus, the contract you make is with the firm, which then contracts with the executive leader. The contract includes a standard 30-day cancellation clause, so you can scale up or scale back services as need be.

Ready to Go?

There are professional experienced interim Executive Directors who are available to talk to you about moving your mission forward during your leadership transition. The first move is yours.


Contact InterimExecs to learn more about how InterimExecs RED Team – an elite group of experienced CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, and COOs – can help your nonprofit organization. 

About the Author

Michelle Barnes

Michelle Barnes has worked with a wide variety of organizations as the Interim Executive Director / President as well as advising on complex transitions. Michelle brings a potent combination of expertise - including two decades in the tech industry and a dozen years in nonprofit leadership - to organizations doing good in the world. She has worked throughout the United States and internationally in the for-profit, nonprofit and social enterprise sectors.