An Interview with Richard Burns on Strengthening Civil Society Through Interim Executive Director Work

“In your success as an executive director, you need a professional support group that you can rely on for frank advice, support when things are terrible, and a place where you can unwind and celebrate.” 


Richard, would you mind giving us a history of your career

I came into nonprofit work as a gay liberation activist in the 1970s, which was sort of my calling. At the time there was one lesbian and gay liberation news weekly called Gay Community News, a political feminist paper where I became the managing editor.  This is 1978, and imagine Harvey Milk is calling up the newsroom to yell about coverage and Audre Lorde is writing to the editor. It was really a center of queer liberation because it was the only newspaper like it. This was before computers, before fax machines … we had only one electric typewriter. It was a different world and got me involved in institution building and focused on the architecture of queer liberation. 

And in the late 1970s, a bunch of us founded a legal organization, GLAD, which went on to establish the right for marriage equality in Massachusetts. Gay Community News sued the United States Bureau of Prisons and was represented by Lambda Legal, where I ended up on the first national board in 1980. I learned of the importance of  infrastructure and building architecture in a movement, and of a collection of institutions that work to move forward a social justice agenda. 

After law school, I was practicing in Boston, and then decided to move to New York to become the Director of the New York LGBTQ Center.  The Center was where many nonprofit movement organizations started, though they originally began as groups of activists. ACT UP, GLAAD, and later on Immigration Equality and Housing Works… all were started at the Center and grew into institutions that had major impacts. 

Where did your interest in interim executive work begin?

When I was still at the Center, I became aware of the Support Center’s training for interim executive directors, and I thought, “interim director…what an interesting idea.” Then a friend, Urvashi Vaid, then the Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, asked me to join them as their first Chief Operating Officer. After about two years I felt ready to be an Executive Director again, but not as I had done before. 

My first interim assignment was actually as a favor for an old friend, Paula Ettelbrick, an important lesbian and gay rights attorney who was the Executive Director of the Stonewall Foundation. I ended up being interim for ten months, helping them with their Executive Director search.

I was about six months in and decided to take the Support Center training, though I had thought, “Wait a minute, I’m already an interim, I must know everything.” But I took the training because I thought I might learn something, and I did learn something. And the things that I really took away were the materials that I used almost as a guidebook.

What I say to new interim executive directors is, “You are a successful Executive Director. That’s not what you need to learn. You need to learn how to do it as a consultant and independent business person, how to bring the perspective of diagnostician, repair person, and sometimes a turnaround artist, as long as you also bring all the skills and experiences with you as a successful executive director. And that’s why this training is important to you.” 

Now, I’m on interim assignment number nine. The Support Center program is strengthening the infrastructure of the social change movement. And the job of Support Center is to strengthen the architecture of this ecosphere with guidance, education and support. 

Moments of executive transition, especially unplanned executive transitions, are extremely vulnerable moments for an organization. And the job of the interim is to touch various constituencies and holders of public trust, staff, funders, and media that may scrutinize what you do, and signal to them, “Continue to invest in this organization and this mission”.  The way I see the Support Center’s program is that of building an army of leaders to strengthen the infrastructure we need to build a decent civil society.

Based on your time as an interim executive director, what would be your wish list of things to bolster this ecosystem ? 

I was lucky that for six and a half years, I was able to develop and run a leadership program for the Arcus Foundation. In 2012, Kevin Jennings, the founder of GLSEN and the past President of the Tenement Museum, and current CEO of Lambda Legal, came in as Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation. During a discussion on the infrastructure of the national LBGTQ movement, we decided to strengthen the infrastructure of our movement through the creation of the Arcus LGBT Leadership program. A cohort of twelve LGBTQ leaders were selected to be Leadership Fellows for two years and were each assigned a paid mentor who was a very experienced and successful executive director in the equality movement that also spoke their same political language. The Fellows came together for a week long retreat at the beginning for facilitated sessions on topics that ranged from fiscal management to advice on working with boards. These retreats were in places like Memphis where we could visit the  National Civil Rights Museum or Cincinnati, where the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located, to ground our movement in the history of other movements.  

The other half of the Arcus Leadership program focused on the development of executive director support groups. I was very lucky when I started at the Center in 1986, Tim Sweeney, former CEO of GMHC, and the late Ken Dawson, former Executive Director of SAGE, realized that all the leaders of queer groups did not know each other and were competing for the same resources. There was not a real community among these leaders, and they started the Lesbian and Gay Executive Director Support Group with a paid facilitator for biweekly, ninety-minute closed, confidential conversations. Many LGBT executive directors in New York will tell you that they lasted in their jobs for a decade because of this peer support group that has been meeting every other Wednesday morning for thirty-five years. 

The Arcus LGBT Leadership Program started executive leadership support groups with the core group of executive directors in fourteen cities around the country.  Formal support networks are critical to your success, just like professional networks are critical to success in your career. In your success as an executive director, you need a professional support group that you can rely on for frank advice, support when things are terrible, and a place where you can unwind and celebrate. 


Richard Burns is a non-profit management consultant who is the Interim Executive Director of the Johnson Family Foundation. He has served as the interim executive director of Lambda Legal, The Drug Policy Alliance, North Star Fund, PENCIL, the Funding Exchange, Funders for LGBTQ Issues and the Stonewall Community Foundation. He was previously the Chief Operating Officer of the Arcus Foundation and was Executive Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City for 22 years, from 1986 to 2009.

Richard serves on the boards of directors of the Proteus Fund, the New York City AIDS Memorial Park, and is chair of the Board of the American LGBTQ+ Museum. His is a former longtime board member of Nonprofit New York and was a member of the Selection Committee of the New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Awards. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for HIV Law & Policy. He served as president of the founding board of directors of GLAD in Boston from 1978 through 1986, and was co-founder of Centerlink.

In addition to transition management and interim leadership his practice includes capital campaign readiness; planned giving program development; organizational governance and compliance; and executive and board leadership coaching.