Sector facing loss of leaders

Study projects 65% of nonprofits' chiefs leaving by 2009


Nearly two-thirds of the nation's nonprofit chief executives are planning to leave their posts by 2009, a sea change spurred on by baby boomer retirements, according to a survey released yesterday by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In the report and in an interview yesterday, Casey Foundation officials expressed concern that this period of major transition will be fraught with problems - stable leadership can be the difference between life and death for a nonprofit. But it will also offer organizations the opportunity to change and improve, experts say.

The foundation, which compiled the results from a survey last year of 2,200 executive directors nationwide, found that 65 percent expected to leave by 2009. That's significantly more than the share who moved on the previous 10 years - 57 percent.

The shift will be generational. Nearly three-quarters of nonprofit executives nationwide are in their 40s and 50s, the foundation said.

"I'm worried about the destabilizing effect that transition can have if it's not handled properly," said Patrick A. Corvington, senior associate at the Casey Foundation. "A vibrant nonprofit sector ... is a critical part of a healthy democracy."

With more than 23,000 nonprofits in Maryland, including major employers such as the Johns Hopkins Institutions, the sector represents a major part of the local economy. Charities' transition to new leadership could therefore have ripple effects beyond delivery of services - though it's the little nonprofits that are most vulnerable at times of change.

Baby boomers also play a critical role in the leadership of government agencies and corporations, but experts worry that the charity sector is not as well-positioned to weather their exodus.

Because many nonprofits are small, executive directors are often the force that keeps them operating - and raising funds. Charities might have six or eight months of operating capital in the bank, and it can easily take that long to find a new director and give them a chance to settle in, Corvington said.

"If nobody's fundraising during that time, you're burning through resources," he said.

When its first executive left, the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition spent roughly four years without a replacement. Ed Sabatino, who came on last year to lead the neighborhood revitalization group, said that's "almost unsurvivable" - the organization made it through because it had reliable funding sources at the time and a strong staff.

But "it certainly doesn't lend itself to an organization aggressively moving forward," Sabatino said.

Casey has begun offering "next steps" workshops to help nonprofits prepare.

The Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations started an executive transition service several years ago after its 2001 survey of local nonprofits found that 78 percent of leaders were planning to leave within five years.

The upside for nonprofits: It will be a good time to retool and recruit people with new skills, Corvington said. Audrey R. Alvarado, executive director of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, is hopeful that some people retiring from government and business will come to nonprofits as a second career.

"It could be a very good opportunity for the sector to bring in new blood," she said.

The old blood, meanwhile, might not go as quickly as expected.

Peter V. Berns, executive director of the Maryland association, notes that it's closing in on five years since his group's survey but the state doesn't seem to have experienced the turnover nonprofits expected. Some of it may simply be delayed - Corvington thinks a significant number of people will work longer than they planned because their retirement funds are too small.

Columbia resident Eva Anderson, 72, wants to keep running her nonprofit as long as she can because she loves the work and fears the 32-year-old Eva Anderson Dancers - the oldest modern professional dance company in Maryland - might not continue without her.

But illness has taken a toll. She's had to suspend the twice-a-year performance seasons indefinitely because she's recovering from three surgeries in the past year.

She hopes the waves of retirements still to come here and nationally will offer the nonprofit sector more than challenges.

"Once people retire, that doesn't mean that they don't do anything," Anderson said. "With ... a large group of people having a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of experienced people, it might be a golden age."

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