Dear Nonprofiteer, Help! We’ve got a flat and no spare!

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m on the Board of a nonprofit serving homeless teenagers.  We’ve been led by the same person for nearly 20 years–not the founder, but the person who gave shape to the group in ways the founder never had a chance to.  Unfortunately (and I shouldn’t be being flip about this), our leader didn’t give the same priority to her own shape, and she’s just experienced a major heart attack. 

Right now we’ve got the Program Director standing in, but that’s not a permanent solution (is it?).  Nor will it work to just wait until the ED is healthy–though she’s going to be fine, she’s already made it clear she won’t be returning to her 80-hour days leading our shop.

So we need a new ED right now, and I have no idea where to find one or even what to look for.  I always thought when the time finally came to change leaders we’d have plenty of opportunity to contemplate and plan; but the time’s finally come and what we’ve got is plenty of nothin’.  How do we proceed?  Help me, Nonprofiteer; you’re my only hope.  Signed, Panicked on the Personnel Committee

Dear Panicked:

Deep breath.  You don’t need a new ED right now; you need a temp.  And while it’s not a simple task to find one of those either, it’s a lot easier when you know that’s what you’re looking for.

Let’s pause to ascertain how the Nonprofiteer decided you need a temp even though you’ve asked for a new leader.  ‘Cause she’s a consultant, that’s how!–but in this case an even Higher Power is involved, because leadership transitions are one area where the secular nonprofits can really
learn from the churches. 

Many denominations have formalized interim
pastor programs, where a veteran (usually semi-retired) minister comes
in for a year or so to steer the church while the search for a new
pastor goes on.  Why?

  • Because at such a time the church’s need to think about its long-term direction conflicts with its parishioners’ short-term needs for marrying and counseling and burying.  Likewise, the church’s need to think long-term conflicts with its building’s short-term need for paint, its suppliers’ short-term need for payment and so on.
  • Because people need time to resolve their feelings about the departed pastor, and separate the ones that have to do with his/her actual strengths and failings from the congregants’ projections about what they needed and never got from their parents.
  • Because the best leader in the world will have enemies as well as friends, and they’ve been waiting for an opportunity like the leader’s departure to enact their own vision of the church’s future, whether it’s a vision anyone else shares or not.
  • Because the best leader in the world has friends as well as enemies, and their initial reaction to a pastor’s departure will be to seek that person’s clone, whether or not such a creature exists or would be good for the church as currently positioned if s/he did.

All these reasons apply equally to secular nonprofits, whose leaders–especially long-term leaders–similarly stand in loco parentis to their communities and whose Boards of Directors similarly need a bit of time to adjust lest they go loco in replacing the parentumTres Oedipal, n’est-ce pas?

What a shame secular nonprofits have no similar institutionalized
system of access to people who are equipped to operate an agency but uninterested in doing so on a permanent basis.  But as our capitalist friends remind us endlessly, where there’s genuine demand the Invisible Hand will provide a supply; and indeed there seems to be the beginning of a market in serviceable used Executive Directors, driven only on Sundays and good for the next few thousand clients while you shop around for a new hot-rod.

Great, you say; where do I sign up?  It’s still an almost-black market, so you’ll have to do some exploring; but try these suggestions:

  • In a few cities, the Nonprofiteer has heard, the Executive Service
    Corps is training retired executives (albeit from the for-profit
    sector) to perform this function at nonprofits.  This is not ideal–running a nonprofit, as we’ve hashed over endlessly, is not just like running a business but with weird bookkeeping.  On the other hand, ESC training is focused on the unique aspects of nonprofits, and there is something to be said for the senior person who already knows how to handle a personnel crisis, negotiate with an irate unpaid creditor and read a balance sheet.  So ask your local ESC if it’s got a stash of interim EDs lying around. 
  • Touch bases with professional associations of consultants, executive coaches or executive search firms and see whether there’s a listserv on which you can post your desire for a person to come run
    your shop for 6 to 12 months while you do a search.  You may find
    consultants who do this specific work; more likely, you’ll find avenues for putting the word out which will reach retiring EDs who’d be happy
    to take on the task at someone else’s institution.
  • Ask every member of the Board of Directors to ask every
    acquaintance s/he has in the nonprofit sector for the name of someone who’s been an ED and might be willing to serve again for one brief shining moment.  Make sure you’re clear with the Board that neither its members, nor your own founding ED, nor any member of your staff is an eligible candidate for the role.  An interim ED must be if nothing else above the fray: s/he cannot have an ax to grind about the agency’s past or future, nor any favorites among staff or Board.
  • Ask your funders for recommendations.  This is one of those rare cases in which funder advice is likely to be worth something: program officers know more about the comings and goings of nonprofit personnel than anyone else in the community, and may know that Joe Bfstlfk is retiring from the Association to End Misspelling of Cartoon Characters’ Names but could be persuaded to work half- or three-quarters time at your shop for the next six to nine months.

The ideal candidate will be someone who’s just retired from a
similar agency.  How similar?  Well, it doesn’t have to be youth
services–it doesn’t even have to be social services–but it should be
a charity rather than a philanthropy, and a 501(c)(3) rather than a
professional association or advocacy group.  Again, what you’re hiring
is skills in managing this particular kind of institution, so the
wheels can keep rolling while you map out your next turn.

The ideal candidate will also be someone calm and pleasant.  For once, we are utterly uninterested in diamonds in the rough, hidden treasures and other subterranean fortunes.  For once, surface is going to be more important than depth.  You’re not going to be plumbing this person’s depths, or asking him to plumb yours.  You’re going to ask him to wrap some duct tape around the pipe and keep it from leaking til you’re ready to bring in the plumber. 

In selecting a permanent leader it’s often difficult to choose between the dynamic and the
stable–you want both, but if one has to predominate which should it be?  With interims, it’s all about unflappability.  Remember: this person isn’t going to be charming Board recruits and
spearheading a capital campaign and expanding the agency’s network;
this person is going to be paying the bills and refereeing employee
complaints and making sure reports are completed on time.  Moreover, dynamic people often get their juice from big egos, and people with big egos can be persuaded that though they came in on an interim basis the world will in fact end if they don’t stay permanently.  This is the LAST thing you want in an interim ED, and in fact perhaps the FIRST thing you want in such a person is the ability to resist the inevitable invitation to stay on forever.  Stable people are harder to flatter, so hire one. 

Hiring anyone is a lot of work, so you may be thinking, "Why don’t I just cut to the chase and do a full-out executive search"?  Actually, finding an interim ED will be easier than describing the process of searching one out, because your requirements are both clear and minimal.  And even if that weren’t the case, remember that an interim interregnum

  • provides a person to unearth all the dirty little secrets and wipe up all the messes, leaving the next real leader with a clean house. 
  • [even more important] provides a person on whom staff and Board can take out all their fears and resentments at having
    been abandoned by their mommies–that is, at having to become accustomed
    to a new leader. 

No matter how terrific a permanent ED you find, the
successor of a long-term leader has the almost impossible task of
making change while making friends.  An interim ED can make change and
not care about friends–like a consultant, s/he asks nasty questions and forces unpleasant
decisions and then walks away bearing all the group’s troubles on his/her back, a literal scapegoat. 

Finally, to return to your initial question: no, having the Program Director take over is not a permanent solution, or even a temporary solution.  As soon as possible you need to give relief to the Program Director so s/he can go back to providing services.  Some Program Directors want to be EDs and some don’t; some are able to make the transition and many aren’t.  It certainly shouldn’t be something automatic, like [heaven forfend] Dick Cheney’s becoming president.  Especially if the Program Director is a candidate for the permanent job, s/he should be prevented from holding it by default for more than a few weeks.


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4 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Help! We’ve got a flat and no spare!”

  1. m Says:

    As I read the question, my heart screamed “interim executive director!” Thank you for such a thoughtful post (as always).

  2. MaryAnn Holohean Says:

    In fact, interim ED programs for nonprofits have existed for some time. One is at
    CompassPoint in San Francisco and one is at Maryland Association of Nonprofits in
    Baltimore, Maryland.

    These programs have been in place for such a long time, that I would not be
    surprised to hear that other programs may be available around the country.

  3. Marcia Lipetz Says:

    Dear Nonprofiteer,
    The Executive Service Corps of Chicago has indeed started an Interim Executive Director program. We have recruited, vetted and trained 21 retired and experienced nonprofit executive directors to fill the leadership gap many organizations face when thieir paid staff leader leaves for one reason or another. Because interim executive directors actually act as paid staff leaders for a brief period of time and NOT as consultants, ESC has sought out those with appropriate professional experience to be in our interim executive director pool. Working with ESC’s Executive Transition Management consultants, Interim executive directors will help organizations prepare, pivot and thrive during a transition period. ESC will refer several members of the IED pool to an organization, and the organization will then interview, select, and contract with their choice. ESC wll provide leadership continuity services throughout.
    More information about Interim Executive Directors and about Exeutive Transition Management is available at

    Marcia Lipetz
    President & CEO
    Executive Service Corps of Chicago

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    It’s great to know that several metro areas offer centralized access to interim EDs–the work of the Executive Service Corps with veteran nonprofit personnel is particularly welcome. If other readers know of other resources, please identify them.

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