Christopher Barry on the charitable landscape in Canada and the role of the Interim Executive

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Question: From your perspective, what does the charitable landscape look like in Canada?

Christopher Barry:

Well, the charitable landscape in Canada is changing, not only changing in terms of its demographic, that is who is working in the sector, but also changing in its composition. How many charities can the country afford? How many charities are seeing themselves as fulfilling a useful purpose?

More and more I think charities are looking for knowledge management. They’re looking to welcome people in from the business sector who can bring with them the knowledge of cause-related marketing that helps charities survive and thrive in a very, very challenging market, more than it’s been in I’d say 20 years.

Question: What should organizations be doing to prepare for transformation in the next ten years?

Christopher Barry:

I think there are really two transformations that are taking place today in the charity sector. The first is the disappearance of donor dollars. There used to be a great many more donors available to charities. That’s not true anymore after 2008. Secondly, I think the number of charities has increased. In 1990 there were perhaps 30 charities in the cancer sector. Today there are over 330. So, the number of charities has increased, dollars have decreased.

Question: In this market, what are the things that are keeping charity Boards and executives up at night?

Christopher Barry:

I think there are two factors that are keeping boards and charity executives awake at night. The first is the decreasing number of donor dollars in the sector in Canada today. Second is the increasing number of charities in similar sectors of the not-for-profit area.

Question: Under what circumstances might a charity Board consider an interim CEO?

Christopher Barry:

A charity board will consider hiring an interim CEO under two circumstances usually. First, where there has been a sudden departure of the CEO for whatever reason, whether it’s direction, a new opportunity for the individual, and there is no succession plan in place. The second issue is the transformation of the organization itself, that is the board has decided that they need to go in a new direction, and the stakeholders are supporting that change, and they’re looking for someone to come in and who can help lead that change.

Question: What questions would you ask a charity Board before taking on an interim executive?

Christopher Barry:

The questions I usually ask boards are if this is a transformation, that is the organization wishes to move in a new direction, how committed is the board to that change? The second, if this is an interim position because of a lack of succession planning, is the succession planning going to be part of the go-forward with the interim CEO? And the third is, is this part of a larger reorganization within the charity, that is they’re looking not only at the CEO’s departure, but are they dissatisfied or satisfied with the other members of the management team?

Question: Other than interim CEO/ED, what other roles might be filled by an interim executive?

Christopher Barry:

Oh, I think today there are a number of roles that get filled by interim executives, whether it’s a fundraising role, a philanthropy role, whether it’s communications, whether it’s in IT as you build digital donors, whether it is in a financial area. All of those positions now are very a part of an interim examination or an interim team coming into the charity.

Question: What are the benefits to a volunteer charity Board in engaging an interim executive or an interim executive team?

Christopher Barry:

Well, the benefits to the board and to the organization are fairly straightforward. First, there’s a continuity between the departure of the CEO and members of the management team and the new ones coming in. Two, most people who are successful in the interim role are quick studies. You are prepared for a quick transition. You understand the financials quickly. You understand the culture quickly. You understand the board’s point of view quickly. And so, it’s almost seamless. And then I would also say that there is an opportunity to meet with the board to look at a 360, both internally and externally.

Question: In your experience, how do full-time staff view an interim executive?

Christopher Barry:

When you’re in a situation of transformation, there is usually a hundred percent cooperation, because you’re in this together and everyone wants the charity to succeed. If you’re stepping in because it’s a succession issue and part of the role is maintenance, then there’s naturally a little apprehension, but that’s quickly addressed and everyone moves forward.

Question: Are there challenges to fundraising as an interim executive?

Christopher Barry:

The challenges are lessened with an interim executive. I’ve always regarded fundraising as asking people to invest in the cause or the charity, and I think that an interim CEO, whatever their background, is very well positioned to do that. You are approaching the issue with fresh eyes. You may have new ideas, and nearly always that is never an issue.

Question: How much of your time is spent on board governance in an interim executive role?

Christopher Barry:

Well, I think board governance takes a great deal of time. There’s the old joke that it’s a hundred percent of time on board governance, there’s a hundred percent of time on the internal issues and program management, and then there’s another hundred percent which is looking at the strategy of where the organization would go. And I think any interim CEO would expect to spend a great deal of time building a relationship with the board.

Question: What are your thoughts on mergers & amalgamations in the charitable sector?

Christopher Barry:

Mergers and amalgamations in the charitable sector will increase, I believe, over the next 10 years, not due to competition or an acquisitive nature, but because competition is going to yield, I believe, or bring about more and more collaboration. There are opportunities to collaborate, whether under shared services, shared support, and I think organizations are going to find more and more reasons to work together to face similar challenges.


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