Addressing Nonprofit Sustainability as an Interim Leader

Addressing Nonprofit Sustainability as an Interim Leader

Addressing Nonprofit Sustainability as an Interim Leader


By Shailushi Ritchie


One of the buzzwords in the nonprofit sector is “sustainability.” 


Funding institutions, individual supporters, and community partners want to know what an organization is doing to ensure long-term stability. Board and staff often address sustainability issues during strategic planning sessions and other programmatic and financial reviews. Leadership charts a steady course, and the issue of sustainability feels settled.


All this changes during a leadership transition, especially when an interim leader steps into a director-level role. Interim leaders assess an organization with a fresh perspective, and they provide an unbiased assessment of an organization’s strengths and challenges and empower the organization in implementing changes that increase efficiency, effectiveness, and equity. 


Occasionally, the organizational assessment will reveal more serious issues that affect an organization’s ability to thrive and potentially survive. 


What is an interim to do if they believe an organization faces significant sustainability challenges?


Challenges to Sustainability


Sustainability challenges fall into three broad categories: 

    • Finance
    • Program
    • People


Financial issues happen when an organization is limited in bringing in enough revenue to do its work. Either the organization is not able to raise enough money, has a negative cash flow, or has more liabilities than assets. 


Programmatic challenges can include models, methods, or activities that do not address the needs of the community. It can also indicate the need to rethink the organization’s strategic plan or theory of change. 


However, both financial and programmatic issues can often be righted if the organization has committed staff and board members.


People-related challenges are equally important and wholly different in nature. Interim leaders rely on the organization’s stakeholders—staff, board, funders, and constituents—to work together to advance the organization’s purpose. But when there is conflict among stakeholders or when one or more groups are disengaged, the challenges of reestablishing stability and developing a sustainability plan becomes very difficult. 


Without engaged and empowered stakeholders, the organization’s strategy and programmatic challenges will remain unresolved.


What an Interim Leader Can Do


Interims facing sustainability challenges needn’t feel resigned to closing shop. According to David Hartman, an interim executive and nonprofit management consultant who has experience in managing sustainability challenges, these situations require interim leaders to utilize their skills thoughtfully, precisely, and strategically. 


Hartman advises that interims should first “know their limits.” 


Although interims may want to help the organization through this challenge, they should first acknowledge what they are able to do and let that understanding guide their work with the organization.


Next, Hartman advises that interims get help from outside experts who can provide an accurate, in-depth analysis of the organization’s assets and challenges. This could mean working with an audit or accounting firm to get a clear understanding of the financial challenges or bringing on an organizational change consultant to assess how people are really thinking and feeling about the organization. 


Another important quality is that interims should balance honesty and transparency with empathy, inclusiveness, and an optimistic attitude. One of the most important things interims can do in this situation is set a realistic tone; challenges are neither overlooked nor are they obsessed over.


Last, interim executives seek to engage as many stakeholders as possible in being part of the long-term solution to the current sustainability challenges. Regardless of the nature of the issue— financial, programmatic, or people-related— setting a new course will require time, energy, and commitment of all players.


Stay Calm and Keep It Steady


Interims can be easily overwhelmed when they face a sustainability challenge. 


After all, interim leaders act as catalysts for organizational change and when the challenges reflect an organization’s ability to exist in its current form, it may feel like its more than one person can do. 


The good news is that interim leaders don’t have to. 


Sustainability challenges are an opportunity for staff, board members, and other key stakeholders to reengage with the organization and to take a critical look at the organization’s vision, purpose, and strategies. Most importantly, interim leaders don’t have to do it alone. 


If we know our personal limits, and the limits of our role, we can shepherd a struggling organization through its challenges to emerge stronger on the other side.


Shailushi Ritchie is a Chicago-based Senior Strategist for Interim Education & Coaching and Founder & CEO of Sevah Consulting. Connect with Shailushi on LinkedIn.