Throughout the country, leaders work tirelessly for their nonprofits, often above and beyond the call of duty. Often nonprofit directors and their organizations are so entwined with each other that a clearly defined succession plan is never a focus. This can be especially true in cases where the director is also the founder, since it is difficult to think of one without the other. Eventually, despite their love for their jobs, these tireless leaders deserve a break–perhaps a permanent one.


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For the next 19 years, 10,000 people will be turning 65 every day. Baby Boomers are in the process of turning over the reigns to Generation X-ers and Millennials. Yet, how fast is this wave of retirement carving out new leaders in the nonprofit sector?


Peggy Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center, who interviewed female nonprofit leaders in southwestern Pennsylvania, discovered that “41 percent (of women) plan to work past age 70 or do not plan to retire at all” due to financial reasons.


These women are not alone. A Seattle Times article highlights the retirement concerns of a Colorado nonprofit employee who has very modest savings in his 401(k).


Are postponed Baby Boomer retirements due to the nonprofits’ lack of sufficient retirement options? The nation’s 2007 – 2009 recession and typically under-average nonprofit salaries could also be contributing factors.


As a result, the retirement wave is coming more slowly than originally anticipated. This slow pace provides time for organizations to find new leadership, right?


Retired leaders sometimes take on consulting roles to help their successors land on their feet. Having a detailed succession plan of action after the leader announces retirement is beneficial.


According to The Boston Globe, “60 percent of (New England) organizations do not have a succession plan,” as they avoid the inevitable retirement statistics. Ultimately, succession planning is a board responsibility.


Organizations like Maine Tourism Association provide a solid model for transitioning. The nonprofit board effectively used the time after the CEO announced retirement to strategize the next steps based on organizational needs.


For nonprofit boards with a leader on the verge of retirement, these suggestions may help ensure a smooth transition:


  • Prepare the staff, donors, and the community of the transition well in advance. Allow the retiring leader time to conclude with pizzaz and grace, while giving the new leader time for a proper introduction and welcoming.


  • Start at home. Before initiating a national search, is there anyone beloved in the organization who is dedicated to the mission, has a solid leadership foundation, and is capable of additional training, if necessary? Or, is there anyone in the community who is ready for a change in scenery and is suited to the mission? Even though it is important to examine the contributions and assets of the retiring leader, remember that the new leader will never be the old leader, and that is perfectly natural.


  • Take stock of the organization’s trajectory, where the nonprofit has been and the direction it is headed, as well as the type of leader that best represents the proposed vision. Use the time to research, discuss, create, and plan for the subsequent phase.


Change can be terrifying for both the leader who is saying goodbye to a long-time career and for the nonprofit about to face new leadership. But with change comes progress.


The Boston Globe has hope for the future of nonprofit leadership: “Younger nonprofit leaders are expected to bring more academic credentials and managerial experience to their jobs than their predecessors initially did, reshaping the sector in the process.”