Preparing for Nonprofit Leadership Retirements

For more than a decade, demographers and nonprofit experts have been sounding the alarm about an enormous wave of leadership retirements poised to sweep through the nonprofit sector as baby-boomers reach retirement age. This “wave” is sure to change, and is changing, the nonprofit leadership landscape, but how it impacts the sector will depend greatly upon whether organizations and their boards anticipate what is coming and successfully plan for it.

A wave of retirements would not be cause for alarm if nonprofits were actively preparing by building staff and volunteer leadership capacity, but that is not always the case. Too often, nonprofit leaders and their boards don’t make this a priority until a retirement date is announced, and then it may be too late. Unplanned leadership transitions can result in major set-backs for organizations, leaving volunteers and new leaders scrambling to make-up for lost time.

The Maine Children’s Home serves both as an example of the magnitude of retirements we might anticipate but also as an example of what’s possible when a board of directors is attentive to, and active in, preparing for leadership transitions. “When I began talking about my own retirement date and plans, I had four other members of my senior management team tell me they planned to retire at or around the same time,” said Sharon Abrams, the organization’s long-time executive director. “With that knowledge, our board sought consulting support to help us embark on a thoughtful, multi-year process to plan for and manage these transitions successfully.”

Nonprofits anticipating leadership retirements in the years ahead are advised to start building organizational capacity well before a retirement date is announced. “Nonprofit boards need to see succession planning and leadership development as essential elements of successful leadership transition,” says Scott Schnapp, a consulting partner with Starboard Leadership Consulting. “Anticipating and planning for retirements and departures also offers an opportunity for boards of directors to take a hard look at themselves and strengthen governance practices and their own membership before embarking on a search.”

When the Maine Tourism Association’s (MTA) long-time CEO announced his plans to retire, the board used the lead time to “turn the mirror on themselves” and conduct a preliminary planning process to help them articulate a shared vision and organizational priorities to potential candidates. “The time we took up-front to prepare ourselves for the search proved invaluable,” says Board Chair Scott Riccio. “We also decided not to go it alone with the search. We knew we needed to engage a consultant who specializes in nonprofit executive search, and he and his firm brought a tremendous level of professionalism to what resulted in a very successful search for MTA.”

How the nonprofit sector weathers this wave of retirements will depend greatly upon the quality of leadership provided by its volunteer boards of directors. If they stick their heads in the sand and try to avoid the inevitable, they will miss the opportunity that comes with well-planned transitions—the opportunity to develop new leaders, to build organizational capacity, and position their nonprofits for future success.

This blog post was authored by Jeff Wahlstrom and is an example of the kind of leadership transition advice offered by Starboard Leadership Consulting. For more details about our firm and our transition and executive search services, please visit our website:, or get in touch today.