A wave of baby boomer retirements has left some of Minnesota’s largest nonprofits and foundations looking for a new generation of leaders.
In Grand Rapids, Minn., the Blandin Foundation launched a nationwide search last month for a new CEO ahead of Kathy Annette’s retirement next year after nearly a decade leading the organization. In Minneapolis, the Food Group, formerly the Emergency Foodshelf Network, is looking for a new executive director by September. Twin Cities-based Volunteers of America Minnesota and Wisconsin, which has a $46 million budget, is also doing a national CEO search.
“This year, we’re busier than we’ve ever been in 25 years,” said Chris Cohen of CohenTaylor, which is conducting the Food Group search.
By next year, Minnesota’s 65+ population is projected to eclipse the K-12 population. For the state’s large nonprofit sector, the retirees include many “legacy leaders,” those who’ve been in the job for more than 10 years as a founder or head of the organization. Cohen said nearly half her firm’s searches in the past two years followed departures of such leaders, which are “tricky transitions.”
“It’s their baby,” she said. “They’re handing it off.”
Some national reports say there will be widespread turnover and a leadership shortage in the sector. But Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Executive Director Jon Pratt said the state’s significant leadership turnover is at a normal rate, with about 20 executive director searches out of 1,600 jobs posted on the council’s jobs board. With the nonprofit sector growing and salaries matching government wages for the first time, Pratt said there’s “a ready supply” of leaders.
Many local nonprofits are turning to headhunters to lead their searches. Marcia Ballinger, co-founder of local search firm Ballinger Leafblad, said nonprofit boards are expanding how they think of a new leader, whether it’s an internal candidate or someone from the corporate or public sectors, and they’re putting a priority on recruiting women or people of color. Millennials are also starting to ascend through the ranks.
It’s a “generational baton passing,” added Lars Leafblad, the firm’s co-founder. “It’s an era of firsts.”
‘Casting a wider net’
That’s prompting boards to look for tech-savvy leaders who can engage different generations, said Divina Gamble, who leads nonprofit searches for the national firm Korn Ferry. Corporate leaders who were hesitant a decade ago to consider a nonprofit CEO opening are now more socially aware and willing to swap sectors, she added.
Gamble said boards are also “adamant” about having diverse candidates. “We’re casting a wider net than ever before.”
Gamble is managing the search for a CEO at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. Lee Roper-Batker is retiring in January after nearly two decades in the job, saying earlier this year she wants to make “room for a new leader, hopefully a leader of color, to bring new insights and wisdom to the foundation.”
Susan Segal, the nonprofit’s board chair leading the search committee, said they hope by this fall to name the new leader of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which has a $5 million budget and gives out grants, funds research and advocates for policy changes.
“This is and will be a major change but also an opportunity for the Women’s Foundation to move into the next chapter,” said Segal, who’s also the city attorney for Minneapolis, adding that other organizations may struggle to fill a top spot “as the job market tightens. I don’t think we will face that problem, but I could see other organizations facing issues and having to make significant changes going forward; that [search] can be difficult.”
Lori Thorp is stepping down after nine years leading the Food Group, which has a $11 million budget and works with food shelves and meal programs. Thorp said some nonprofits may have a hard time filling top roles, especially as millennials ascend through the ranks.
“Executive director positions are pretty high burnout in general,” Thorp said, adding that she thinks the sector needs to shift to co-leadership roles instead of one top leader. “As more and more [leaders] over time retire and you think of the millennials coming up, I don’t know they want this kind of job. … There’s a big focus on work-life balance.”
Paula Hart, who is retiring in October after eight years leading the human services nonprofit Volunteers of America, added: “It’s more than ever a 24/7, buck-stops-here job. There is a challenging time. This is more of a lifestyle than it is a job.”
But, she said, it’s also an exciting time for nonprofits to find new voices and ideas.
Pay has also grown at large social service nonprofits, with CEO compensation topping $200,000 to $500,000.
In the last year, a lot of nonprofits have selected longtime community leaders for their top spots.
Second Harvest Heartland picked MNsure leader Allison O’Toole to be its CEO earlier this year. Global Minnesota named former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie for its top job starting in January. This spring, John Wilgers came out of retirement after a 35-year career at Ernst & Young to lead the Greater Twin Cities United Way.
In St. Paul, the Minnesota Humanities Center tapped Kevin Lindsey, the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, to take the top spot in June, citing that he was a “proven changemaker.” It followed a search nationwide, which is becoming the norm for nonprofit leadership searches, said board member Trudy Ohnsorg, who also works at Cincinnatus, which does executive searches.
“It’s challenging to find great people,” she said. “It’s becoming more competitive.”