Authored by Peter Lowy
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ED as 'Heroic Martyr' Hinders Nonprofit Leadership Succession

April 27th, 2016 by Peter Lowy

The nonprofit executive director as "heroic martyr"—committed, overworked, trying to do ever more with the same or shrinking resources—doesn't serve the organization and may dissuade new generations of potential leaders from taking over, attendees at a panel discussion in Boston were told earlier this week.

Articulating the sentiment was Hez Norton, director of partnership and leadership initiatives at Third Sector New England (TSNE), speaking on "The Future of Nonprofit Leadership" at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, who presented key findings from a TSNE nonprofit leadership survey completed last year.

Other panelists, as well as many among the 50 attendees, agreed with Norton.

Said Danny LeBlanc, chief executive officer of the Somerville Community Corporation for the last 15 years, "We role model things I wouldn't want to emulate if I were 30."

Shirronda Almeida, director of the Mel King Institute for Community Building in Boston, concurred, observing that because Millennials, those born from 1982 through 2002, are looking to make an impact and less interested in functioning within traditional organizational hierarchies, current nonprofit leaders need to reduce stress from the top job and focus more on what type of organization they want to leave behind.

While the event was organized to stimulate discussion on a key survey finding—that 64% of nonprofit leaders across New England, and 78% in Boston, said they intend to retire within five years—panelists acknowledged that numerous regional and national surveys for at least the past 15 years have developed similar projections, which have yet to materialize.

Jennifer Aronson, senior director of program and nonprofit effectiveness at The Boston Foundation, said nonprofits have not yet seen a massive leadership turnover, because many Baby Boomer nonprofit leaders are not ready to retire. 

"They feel they're on the side of good and push themselves," she said, which results in leaders protecting the organization as it is today instead of thinking about the best way to make an organizational impact. She added, "We say we can do more with less, but that's not realistic."

One possible response, Aronson suggested, is for nonprofits to practice leadership sharing, which helps more people within the organization more fully understanding how it functions.

Another response is for nonprofits to learn to say "no" to funders who underfund projects. 

"Nonprofits need to be realistic regarding what it costs to do programs, and reject funding if it is not enough," said Norton, himself a former nonprofit executive director who changed the direction of his career because "the work takes its toll."

Key findings from the TSNE Leadership New England report included the following:

  • 58% of nonprofit leaders and 62% of nonprofit board members said their organizations do not have any type of succession plan in place. 
  • Two-thirds of leaders (64%) and half of board members (52%) said they do not believe there is someone on the staff who could succeed the executive.
  • One-third (32%) of all leader and board respondents said they believe there is enough “bench strength” in their organizations, that is, “people who can step into leadership/management roles if and when needed.”
  • 35% of Massachusetts nonprofit leaders said it is essential to have support for developing succession plans, and slightly more (37%) said it is essential to provide funds for developing professional staff.
  • 60% of Massachusetts nonprofit leaders earn $99,000 per year or less.

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