Identifying & Hiring an Interim Leader Takes Diligence, Care, Time

By Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro
Although an interim leader by definition will only occupy the job for a short time, nonprofits need to exercise the same level of care filling that slot as they will for the permanent position.

Whether the need for an interim leader is sudden, due perhaps to health or performance issues, or part of a planned transition, leadership changes are times of instability and risk, but they are also times of tremendous opportunity. Transitions provide a chance to evaluate where the organization fits in its field and what leadership structures will create the most sustainable and effective future.

Transitions can require a lot of work on the part of the board and staff. The work you do during this period will position the organization for success. Whether the future holds significant changes or just the hiring of a new leader, it is crucial that the organization’s board and staff stay engaged during the transition and encourage one another to be involved during this time of significant opportunity.

The following tips should help:

Conducting the Search for an Interim Leader:

If the board has hired an executive director or CEO recently, it will have some helpful experience and precedents. Since this position will report to the board, the board should be highly engaged in the hiring process. A transition committee or executive committee, possibly including staff, can serve as the working group responsible for hiring and onboarding the interim leader.

Identifying a Potential Interim Leader:

Identify candidates by talking with your work and personal networks about their experiences with nonprofit interim management. Check national, regional, and local nonprofit and for-profit organizations that place interim leaders as well as membership organizations that maintain databases of nonprofit consultants by specialty. Search LinkedIn for people in your area with experience as an interim executive director, interim CEO, or interim leader in a nonprofit organization.

If you’re working with an executive search consultant for the permanent position, he or she might be able to recommend interim leaders. Also consider executive director-level people who are between jobs or retired, especially if they’ve worked in circumstances similar to those your nonprofit faces.

Don’t overlook internal candidates, or even two senior staff members who could serve as interim co-leaders, especially if they don’t want to be considered for the long-term position. If you choose this option, you might want to hire an outside consultant to ensure sufficient support for the board and interim leader or leaders, who would assist with problem-solving and act as a liaison between board and staff during the transition and support the board during the hiring or strategic partnering process.

Interim leaders shouldn’t be a candidate for the permanent position, but they should have:

  • Experience with interim leadership, nonprofit management, the field your organization is in, key operational issues/areas (all or some of these)
  • Experience with transitions, change, crisis
  • Demonstrated leadership
  • Discretion and trustworthiness
  • Dependability and consistency
The Hiring Process:

Create a position description that includes your goals for the transition, key issues the organization is facing, skills desired, timeframe, salary or salary range. When your conversations with candidates get to the final stage, confidentially share any information that will be helpful to the candidate so that you both can assess whether he/she is a good fit for this particular engagement (or not). Handle this process like any other hiring: check references, both formal and informal, make an offer, and then work with your final candidate on a contract and scope of services, which functions like a hiring letter.

Onboarding Interim Leaders:

Onboarding an interim leader will require some quality time and the collaboration of board and staff. Select one board member, generally the chair or president, for the interim leader to report to and check in with regularly. Early in the engagement, the interim leader will collaborate with the board president or transition committee to assess the organization and prioritize goals and activities for the interim period.

Interim leaders often depend on board and senior staff members to play key public relations roles during a transition. A transition committee with authority from the board to make critical decisions, support the interim leader, and help introduce him/her to key constituents can go a long way to assure the interim leader's success. Be sure to further clarify the scope of services and establish priorities during the first four to six weeks of the engagement, and allow your interim leader to share his or her observations, suggestions, and solutions with you.

Andrea Shapiro, of Andrea Shapiro Consulting, helps nonprofits succeed throughout organizational transitions, growth, and innovation. Email to her at or call 617-666-0280.

December 2017