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More NH Nonprofits Seeking New CEOs
Published Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In the last two years, more than a quarter of the 50 largest nonprofits in the state have seen their CEOs retire. Since many of those organizations had leaders at the helm for 15 years or more, they are not only losing talented leaders with deep community connections but are also a bit rusty when it comes to the executive search process. Chances are most board members weren’t around when the leaders were hired.

And this is just the beginning of the silver tsunami experts warn will hit organizations hard. Two-thirds of current nonprofit leaders plan to leave their jobs within five years, and 30 percent say they'll leave in the next two years, according to a 2015 survey from Third Sector New England (TSNE), a nonprofit consultancy and leadership training association.

During the first half of 2016, the NH Center for Nonprofits saw 47 organizations advertising for executive directors or CEOs, and Kathleen Reardon, CEO of the NH Center for Nonprofits says the scope of postings is a little ahead of previous years.

Among the steady stream of nonprofit leaders leaving are: Tom Horgan, 63, who announced earlier this year he will retire as executive director in the spring of 2017 after 24 years leading the NH College and University Council (NHCUC) in Concord; Lisa Christie, 63, who is retiring after 27 years at the helm of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter; Hal Jordan, 63, who is retiring after 27 years guiding the Granite YMCA in Manchester; and Douglas Heuser, who retired after 30 years leading the SEE Science Center in Manchester.

Replacing a longtime leader is challenging, especially one who co-founded the organization (in the case of Heuser) or led it through significant growth from one location to five (in the case of Jordan).

After all, Reardon says, it takes years to cultivate strategic partnerships and donor relationships, which is why most nonprofit boards silently pray that executive directors remain for lengthy stints. But transitions are inevitable, she says.

The challenge, in many cases, is the lack of an heir apparent. About 60 percent of organizations do not develop contingency plans in the event of a director’s departure, according to the TSNE survey. Some organizations have turned to former board members and longtime supporters to serve as interim CEOs while they seek a permanent replacement.

Searching for the Right Leader
The NH Center for Nonprofits, which advises nonprofits on a variety of issues including succession planning, put its own plan to work when Executive Director Mary Ellen Jackson left in June 2015 after announcing in December 2014 her planned departure. The organization formed a search committee and had an ongoing search when it hired former board member, Mike Ostrowski, retired president and CEO of Child and Family Services of NH, to bridge the gap until Reardon was hired in January 2016.

Reardon says the Center has a board-approved succession plan in place that covers protocols for an unplanned temporary absence, a permanent, unplanned absence, as well as for a planned transition. It also outlines steps the board will take to ensure a smooth transition when a new executive is hired.

Finding the right replacement can be tough, particularly if it means filling the shoes of a dynamic leader. It’s a time for boards to take a step back and reassess where the organization is at, where it is heading and whether it requires a leader with a different set of skills to lead it to that next stage.

Certainly the next leader of the Granite YMCA will have big shoes to fill. When Hal Jordan arrived at the Granite YMCA in 1989, he presided over one branch in downtown Manchester and earned $52,000. That’s a stark difference from today, when the Granite YMCA must find a leader for a $16 million organization with five branches and two overnight camps. Now in his 28th year as CEO, Jordan commands a salary of $194,000, which is only slightly higher than average for a nonprofit of this size, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the NH Center for Nonprofits.

In the last five years, Jordan expanded programs in the arts, day camps and programs for at-risk youth. “We are ready to have a new leader help the YMCA go even further than it is today,” he says, adding “It’s time to head in new directions.”

So after 41 years with the Y—he started as the fitness director in Waterville, Maine—Jordan is retiring next March. He told the Y about his retirement two years ago. Jordan’s senior management team, with one exception, has been with him since his arrival. “There’s almost nothing I know, they don’t,” he quips. But leaving nothing to chance, Jordan is compiling for his successor an archetypal “guidebook,” which includes lists of donors and volunteers whose contributions the Granite Y couldn’t live without.

Nationally, the majority of YMCA directors hired today are not YMCA employees, according to Jordan. And from what he’s seen over the years, “the succession within the institution is very weak.”

Denise Langley, vice chair of the Granite Y board of directors and head of the selection committee, says that in addition to advertising on sites like indeed.com, volunteers called area businesses to alert them about the opening. The Granite Y also receives free administrative and legal help from the national staff’s CEO search specialists. A well-publicized job description, assistance from a national organization and the two years the Y had to prepare give Langley confidence the nonprofit can find a strong candidate from the 81 people who applied, of which 36 were from NH.

The NHCUC turned to Dick Gustafson, former chancellor of the Community College System of NH and president emeritus of Southern NH University, to serve as its search consultant for Horgan’s replacement. The stakes are high, Gustafson says, as the candidate must advocate in a state where higher education spending comprises only 2 percent of the state budget, and student debt is more than 20 percent the national average. Some institutions are also struggling to meet enrollment goals.

Gustafson says NHCUC must find someone fluent in public policy, business and key issues in higher education. And, like every other executive director of a nonprofit, the candidate must be comfortable asking donors for money.

Gustafson says the board spent several daylong meetings hammering out initiatives and priorities, now documented on its website. Horgan has also agreed to stay on as a consultant to ease the learning curve and maintain continuity.

Much has changed at the NHCUC since Horgan’s arrival in 1993 when the organization had nearly depleted its reserves. Under Horgan’s direction, the nonprofit co-founded the NH Forum on the Future which highlights emerging issues confronting NH businesses, policy makers and higher education. NHCUC also recently received a $10 million federal grant over seven years to improve access to higher education for low income, minority and disadvantaged first-generation students and their families.

As he looks back on his stewardship, Horgan acknowledges he never expected to stay on this long, but the “work was challenging and engaging.” When he decided he was ready to move on, he gave the organization a year’s notice. Horgan says the consortium is in good fiscal health.

Horgan says he’s ready for a change and he's unsure what his next chapter will hold, but it won’t look like a life of leisure.

Outside Help for Searches
While replacements are often found through a search process, sometimes organizations choose to call in help.

The luxury of time was not in Symphony NH’s favor when Executive Director Eric Valliere accepted the position of assistant artistic administrator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). During his 11-year tenure, Valliere broadened the orchestra’s reputation from a Nashua-based ensemble to a professional statewide orchestra. And the organization didn’t want to lose its momentum.

Symphony NH had six weeks to find a replacement and, in the meantime, worked out an arrangement with the BSO for Valliere’s availability one day a week. The organiation spent $15,000 to hire a niche consultant, Polly Kahn of PK Art Solutions/PK Orchestra Solutions of New York, to lead the search.

This was necessary, says Robert Oot, Symphony NH’s board president, because the organization wasn’t likely to find a successor in the local market. The biggest challenge, says Oot, was a narrow field of applicants who could offer marketing, negotiating and fundraising skills with a background in administrative arts and, of course, a passion for music.

Kahn says as she learned more about Symphony NH’s outreach to school districts and other nonprofits, she focused on candidates that not only had the savoir-fare to step into Valliere’s role but were likely to embed themselves in the community to meet the needs of the organization moving forward.

This path eventually led the search committee to Marc Thayer, 45, former deputy director of the St. Louis-based Association of American Voices, which brings musical opportunities to countries emerging from conflict.

Thayer was also a violin instructor at two of the local universities, and previously was vice president for education and community partnerships with the St. Louis Symphony.

Although Thayer hadn't heard of Nashua, he didn’t need a big spiel to draw him to the area and the organization. The caliber of the orchestra, its connections with educators and the opportunity to sharpen its visibility was sufficient bait. Thayer took the helm July 1.

Unlike previous Symphony NH directors, Thayer chose to live near where he works in downtown Nashua. The choice was both cultural and strategic: He walks to restaurants and attends evening meetings on the arts commission and the chamber, and says, “You can’t do that if you work 9 to 5 here and live somewhere else.”

Kahn says the search process took about three months, which is typical.

Specialists like Kahn deliver good outcomes, says Sheila Kabat, vice president of Snowden Associates, an HR consulting firm. Recognized consultants know how to mine the marketplace using social media and other technologies, Kabat says, and are experts at interviewing and identifying talent. Many nonprofits do not have a full time HR person nor the expertise or time for the demanding process.

Understanding an organization’s mission is usually what inspires nominees to apply, says Kabat. “Many times they’ve been affiliated with the organization through other people in their lives.”

As part of its services to nonprofits, the Center offers planning templates on its website to manage change effectively. The guidelines recommend drawing up brief action plans for abrupt departures, clarifying job descriptions and typical work plans for the CEO, devising plans to notify key funding partners of the change, and suggesting processes for hiring. In her experience, says Reardon, nonprofit boards cast as wide a geographic net as appropriate to seek candidates for executive positions.

“In quickly scanning recent executive announcements on our website,” says Reardon, “about two-thirds were filled by Granite Staters.”

The Next Generation
The NH Audubon faced a challenge not uncommon. Its president, Michael Bartlett, whose eight-year stint was a post-retirement position he took after running NH’s Fish & Wildlife, wanted to retire for real. He’d moved the organization from struggling to successful and was ready to move on.

This time around, NH Audubon wanted a fundraiser who could sprint out of the gate. More importantly, says David Ries, board chair of the private, membership-based environmental organization headquartered in Concord, the nonprofit needed someone who “lived the mission.” Ries says he’d seen other nonprofits appoint leaders as “change agents,” who later clashed with existing staff and departed before getting their feet wet. New Hampshire Audubon didn’t want to experience a similar fate, which is why the board agreed to spend $40,000 on Kittleman & Associates, a Chicago-based recruitment firm. That amount was 40 percent of the starting salary.

In June, NH Audubon welcomed avid birder and naturalist Doug Bechtel as the president. Bechtel moved back here from Troy, New York where he had been the executive director of Audubon International (unaffiliated with other Audubons). For 15 years, he had managed staff and developed programs for the NH chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Ries says a change in leadership breeds new points of view. For example, Bechtel opened up a debate about what direction conservation efforts should be now that we've been successful with raptors. This suggestion and others led to rethinking its strategic planning. Bechtel wants to elevate the 100-year-old organization’s “sophistication and influence in the environmental sphere.” That means using social media to engage a younger generation.  

Like Bechtel, Reardon is putting her own mark on the Center already. She is focusing on cross-sector collaboration and has organized workshops to help nonprofits understand the requirements for contracting with the Department of Health and Human Services as many serve its clients.

Investing in the Future
Nonprofits often face a conundrum. They must address complex societal challenges amid shrinking resources, which requires deft leadership from savvy executives. But the public often balks at typical executive pay at a nonprofit.

These are issues Brian Cullen, board chair for the Nashua Soup Kitchen, hears often. He says low overhead often translates to poor efficiencies. “There’s a perception that we shouldn’t pay market rate for an executive director, but that’s unfair,” he says. “Having somebody who costs a little more but greatly increases your sources of revenue is far more valuable than their salaries would let you know.”

For 27 years, Lisa Christie has been the face of the soup kitchen. She manages the budget, works with volunteers, clients and the city of Nashua. About 60 percent of her job is raising funds and speaking about the mission. “She’s grown with the organization,” says Cullen. “And we’re not likely to get someone with the same level of experience.” He says her departure is prompting the organization to assess its strengths.

The board of directors created a search committee, which Christie participates in. It relies on advertising on nonprofit job boards and spreading the word via public relations and expects to hire a new director by the end of the year.

Most nonprofit boards don’t have the funds to conduct leadership training on succession planning. And they don’t have the time to advertise for new positions and cull resumes from around the country.

But this predicament isn’t all bad news, acknowledges Polly Kahn. The search for a successor is also an opportunity. In the context of current circumstances, institutions can revisit their missions and values.  
And that means “they can focus on finding just the right person for where they find themselves today and where they hope to go moving forward.”

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