Boston Nonprofits Unprepared for Leadership Transitions, Study Finds

A large majority of nonprofit leaders in the greater Boston area plan to leave their positions within five years, yet many organizations are unprepared for a leadership transition, a report from the Boston Foundation finds.

Based on surveys and focus groups with nonprofit leaders across New England and a subset from the greater Boston area, the report, Opportunity in Change: Preparing Boston for Leader Transitions and New Models of Nonprofit Leadership (48 pages, PDF), found that 78 percent of nonprofit leaders in the Boston area and 76 percent in New England expect to leave their jobs in the next five years. At the same time, more than 70 percent of Boston and nearly 60 percent of New England nonprofits reported having no succession plan in place — even though the leaders of the majority of those organizations plan to leave within five years.

Conducted by Third Sector New England, the study also found that Boston-area nonprofits faced three persistent organizational challenges — fundraising, undercapitalization, and ineffective communication between boards and leaders. Nonprofit leaders ranked fund development as the most challenging part of their jobs and the area where they need the most support. And with 54 percent of greater Boston nonprofits reporting that they had three months or fewer of cash reserves on hand, the report's authors were not surprised that only 58 percent of the organizations surveyed reported budgeting for professional development of staff.

"This is a moment of uncertainty but also of opportunity to prepare Boston for new models of nonprofit leadership," said Hez Norton, lead author of the report. "We cannot continue to expect nonprofits to realize their potential under current constraints...and we cannot expect the best leaders to be willing to take the reins of these organizations under these conditions."

To address these challenges, the report recommends that nonprofits take three key actions: start conversations now with respect to  a succession plan; invest in staff and cultivate leaders on an ongoing basis, building diversity and inclusion by tapping underrepresented populations; and view a leadership transition as an opportunity to recalibrate the organizational structure and shift from  succession planning to planning for sustainability.

"During this period of widespread leadership transition, we hope this report will be a catalyst for dialogue and action on the part of funders, donors, boards, leaders and their staff," said Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan. "The ultimate goal, of course, is to position our entire sector so that it is poised for a future of unprecedented effectiveness and impact."