Many Nonprofits Lack Leadership Succession Plans, Survey Finds

Despite the expected retirement of large numbers of veteran nonprofit executives in the next few years, many organizations lack a formal succession plan, the Boston Globe reports.

According to a report due out in June from Third Sector New England, nearly a third of the nonprofit leaders in the region who were surveyed said they planned to leave their jobs within two years, while almost two-thirds said they anticipated leaving their positions within five years. Yet 60 percent of the organizations in the survey said they did not have a formal succession plan in place. "Those are sobering numbers," said Michael Weekes, CEO of the Boston-based Providers' Council, a statewide association of human services organizations. "Society really depends on having a strong network of nonprofit organizations with strong leadership....I don't think we've done enough as a sector in preparing people to assume those roles."

At many nonprofits, leadership transition is a notoriously difficult topic to broach, particularly for founding executives who have led the organizations they created for decades, TSNE's Hez Norton told the Globe. "[T]hese organizations are their babies," said Norton, "and the 'What next?' question is a big one." In addition, many all-volunteer boards do not have the time, knowledge, or experience to take on the task of selecting a successor; few nonprofits offer professional development or leadership training, which are typically viewed as unaffordable luxuries; and, in many cases, the pool of in-house candidates is small.

Given that a leadership change can be a risky proposition — many organizations are closely identified with a charismatic leader who drives fundraising, and financial backers may withhold support if an organization's future looks to be uncertain — some nonprofits are keeping former executives in consulting roles while they search for a replacement, while others are spending more time and money on grooming members of senior staff to take over before the chief executive steps down.

On a brighter note, the new generation of nonprofit leaders is likely to bring more credentials and managerial experience to their jobs than their predecessors did, reshaping the sector in the process. "The difficulty is you'll have a huge loss of leadership and institutional memory," said Barry Dym, executive director of Boston University's Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership, "and the opportunity is you’ll have a lot of young people coming in [who are] better trained."

"Nonprofits Hungry for New Leadership." Boston Globe 05/18/2015.