If you are the best option for the organization, you can be its saviour.
You might be the one who can save a not-for-profit important to your community, AND get amazing satisfaction from your accomplishments in a short time.
If you’ve been approached to consider stepping into a not-for-profit as CEO or Executive Director for four to twelve months, what do you need to know and how can you get answers?
This article series will talk about the questions that will help you decide if it’s the right opportunity for you, in relation to the situation, the expectations, the conditions of service and what the role could make possible for you, the organization and the community.
The Starting Point
Sometimes these openings are planned months in advance, for a maternity or sabbatical leave. Sometimes the vacancy is sudden, due to an accident or abrupt unexpected departure (unexpected by the board, the Executive or both, and likely not for pleasant reasons). The board may be in turmoil, especially if there were some directors supporting the Executive and other in favour of termination. The departing executive may or may not be willing or able to share knowledge or assist in any way with transition.
In other words, it’s difficult to predict how much information you can obtain in advance of deciding to take the role, and even how accurate the information you are given will be. We live in a world where we almost always have to make significant decisions based on incomplete data and a lot of uncertainty. Even if you sign a confidentiality agreement (and I recommend you do) in advance, some important facts will be withheld or simply not known to your primary contact (usually the Chair).
If you are still reading, you are willing to accept ambiguity. You will have to decide when you have enough information to say yes or no, knowing you will be able to learn a lot more once you are on the job.
You’ll want to know if you are stepping into a relatively stable organization that just needs to be kept in good order, or into a maelstrom. The latter is not always a negative—challenges are exciting. If you can move the nonprofit from chaotic to thriving, you’ll get lots of kudos and satisfaction. But you might not have the energy for pandemonium right now, especially if you just left an exhausting role.
Ask really open-ended questions to learn what you can. Why is an Interim Executive needed right now? How is the Board feeling about the departure/absence and transition? Managers? Other staff members? Volunteers? Funders? Regulators? Peer organizations? Referral agencies? What kind of support is an Interim Executive Director likely to get, or very much not get, both to learn the role and as they lead?
What’s the financial situation? Stable, shaky but probably OK, in debt, close to insolvent? If it’s not stable, what’s being done to develop financial sustainability? How are financial risks being monitored?
Are there legal issues you will have to deal with? Lawsuits, government audits, human rights complaints or other such significant liabilities?
Why is the position vacant, and for how long? If the vacancy is permanent, what’s the recruitment status? Are there internal candidates? If it’s a leave, how likely is the person to return?
Are you their main hope, or are other options being considered?
What is Your Gut Telling You?
If your gut tells you vital information is being withheld, that’s a bigger red flag than any issue they can name. I’d be blunt, and say, “I sense there’s something important you aren’t telling me. I need to know what I might be walking into. Please be candid.” A refusal at this stage can be the make or break item.
Only you can decide whether the challenges are within your competencies and the mission important enough for you to say yes.