As I am closing in on my final hours at the Idaho Nonprofit Center, I wanted to circle back and review the transition plan with the community, in the hope that our experience might be a useful guide. The one thing I committed to doing at the Center was to always share what we learn as an organization. 2020 was a challenging year for all of us in the nonprofit sector, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it leads to staff changes. It is not why I left, but burnout is often a factor when deciding to move on.
But first, a story. Once upon a time, in an organization far, far away, an executive director gave their notice. The staff was reassured that a transition plan was in place and would be executed. Unfortunately, as the executive director slowly stepped away from their role, the plan was clearly not followed or even reviewed.
Instead, the executive director agreed to stay on beyond the normal 30-day notice while an immediate search for a replacement was conducted. At the same time, that executive director started their new role and was living out of state, leaving the staff alone, un-led, with no help for 2-3 months. This created chaos, frustration, and resentment. They were left untethered, without a leader or a clear chain of command. They were held accountable for decisions they did not have the authority or experience to make, nor were they compensated to do so. The staff was the duct tape holding the sinking ship together.
This is a fictional story based in an actual scenario, and one that plays out in a variety of ways in many organizations. Without a transition plan in place, or when one isn’t honored, a whole lot of chaos is created for the remaining staff and that can hold the organization back long-term.
Transition plans are so important. They provide a framework and a roadmap to follow for the board, who will no doubt carry a larger burden of work as the CEO is leaving, and they create a process for the remaining staff to follow, feeling confident in knowing what changes are coming and when. Not having a plan, or not following an established plan, creates chaos and leads to delayed and sometimes poor decisions.
Why an Interim?
One of the most effective ways that an organization can manage a sudden (temporary or permanent) transition is by appointing an interim executive director. Ideally, there’s a senior team member ready to assume this interim role, but when there isn’t, hiring an outside professional is recommended.
Interims can be quickly appointed. This allows the existing executive time to download and document their work and it is especially helpful when it’s an internal staff member. Hired consultants are the next best thing.
There’s a reason that there are entire consulting practices built around this concept: because they work, they are needed, and they are a strong best practice. I strongly encourage you to Google “Why are interim EDs bad for nonprofits?”. You’ll find pretty much nothing negative. In fact, article after article strongly suggests an interim is the way to go during executive transitions. Not only can they provide an anchor for the ship, but they can also support building out a new candidate profile and facilitating the hiring process, leaving the board and staff to focus on what they do best.
But what about a board member as an interim? Board members are, and should be, a third line of defense. Board members should be considered as a “last” option not because they can’t be effective, but because every nonprofit needs their strong and capable board members at the table during times of transitions.
This job cannot be done as a “volunteer” checking in from time to time. It’s a full-time job. Most board members of nonprofits are employed full-time. A retired or semi-retired board member could certainly step in, but they should be considered alongside any other potential interim candidate based on their qualifications (that don’t just end with the title of board member).
Furthermore, board members serving as interims are required to step down as a board member temporarily, and may find it hard to wear an entirely different hat and then set it aside to rejoin the board. Smaller more volunteer-run and hands-on boards are maybe a better fit for board members to slide into an interim role, but larger organizations with bigger budgets, large teams, and multiple programs aren’t the best fit for part-time volunteer interim directors.
I would like to share a couple of resources that I found useful as we reviewed our own transition plan in 2018: Ingrid Kirst’s explanation of interim benefits and this white paper from the well-respected Annie E. Casey Foundation. It’s full of case studies and useful tips.
How long should we have one?
An interim can be in place for as little or as long as you’d like. Longer is better, at least from the research I’ve done and what I have seen in the nonprofit sector over my past twenty years of experience.
Each organization is different and there are varying schools of thought on how long a nonprofit needs an interim. For the purposes of the hiring process, the bare minimum if the organization just reposts the same position could be at least three months.
Most nonprofit organizations need to take even more time in their process. For example, do you still need to hire someone with the same qualifications and experience as the outgoing ED? For those who have had a 3-5 year or more tenure, most likely not. If the organization has experienced a lot of growth, probably not. If the organization is starting to stagnate, most definitely not.
The board, staff, and key stakeholders should provide input into building out a new leadership candidate profile. Looking at the job description should be done using a lens of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. This takes time. The recruiting strategy also needs a DEIJ lens as well as the entire onboarding and interview process.
Something else to consider in the timeline is whether or not the organization has any large events coming up. From a staff perspective, it is unproductive to expect them to onboard or even help to interview candidates in the midst of major event planning. The interim ED can take a look at the workflow, plans, and capacity of the staff and advise the board on the right or appropriate timing.
What does the staff think? What do they want?
When given options between hiring someone straight away or an interim, more often than not, staff support an interim. They cite a lot of reasons that are worthy of consideration. For example, they worry that if the decision is rushed the organization may end up with someone who is qualified but a poor fit.
Staff also want to and should be a part of any hiring process for a new leader. When a CEO leaves, more day-to-day tasks are spread out to the team. Their capacity for finding time is limited at best. Rushing the process puts more pressure on the remaining staff, on whom this transition is always the most difficult.
Normally the outgoing CEO is leaving big shoes to fill and staff especially want time to properly vet the right candidate. An interim can offer a valuable outside perspective from the rest of the board and staff.
My recommendation to all boards dealing with a leadership transition is to bring the staff into the process. Ask them what they think. Again, they will be the most impacted by the transition; sometimes they are losing a leader they love and sometimes they will be relieved, but no matter what the feelings are, they will be impacted the most.
What about the cost?
Worrying about the cost should not be the first thought. Getting it all right for the staff, the board, and the organization should be the bigger concern.
Whenever you put money in front of people when you’re trying to solve a problem, it gets hard. Put the people first: staff, nonprofits, board members, stakeholders. I promise the decision is easier.
Remember that almost anything is negotiable. Also, be up front in the RFP or job posting about what you can do and you might be surprised. Include your annual budget, number of FTE and a link to your 990s. This will help guide a proposal from an outside consultant.
If you can appoint an interim from among the staff, make sure you compensate them for the additional work.
Remember that plans create paths to follow, which keep boards from having to dedicate additional time out of their day to make decisions that could have already been made. Plans provide a framework for the remaining staff, for whom a transition of leadership is the most difficult.
These are the reasons that good, strong nonprofit organizations have transition plans in place: so that decisions don’t have to be made in fear, panic, anger, or frustration and immediate action can be taken to move forward.
At the Idaho Nonprofit Center, I am grateful for the visionary leadership of our board for putting a plan in place back in 2018, long before I had a thought to move on. And I’m proud of the hard and quick work of our executive committee and the thoughtfulness in which they’ve approached this change. You should all be so lucky!
I am going to miss this work, my board, the nonprofit sector, but most of all my team. Never have I worked with a more passionate, dedicated, and mission-focused team. I am so very blessed to have called the Idaho Nonprofit Center home these past nearly five years. I will be cheering you all on from the sidelines as you all, collectively, make our world a much better place.
We hope you find these resources beneficial. We welcome suggestions on how we can improve this section. Contact us at