Boston Foundation Report Urges Action in the Face of Massive Nonprofit Leader Transitions

March 24, 2017

‘Opportunity in Change’ suggests paths to optimize leadership transition and increase diversity

BOSTON, Massachusetts (March 24, 2017) –While the threat of wholesale Baby Boom retirement has seemed imminent for some time, it is finally and undeniably happening now. The Boston Foundation has released its fifth Understanding Boston report on the subject of nonprofit effectiveness, with a sharp focus on leadership development in the face of an oncoming wave of transitions. Opportunity in Change is based on extensive surveys and focus groups with nonprofit leaders throughout New England and a subset from Greater Boston. The report’s findings yield not only statistics on leadership transitions on the horizon, but also advice for nonprofits that could be equally sound for any organization. Indeed, if organizations don’t seize the moment and act strategically and proactively now, they may miss the chance to address many other longstanding challenges on a significant scale.

When asked how long they foresaw staying in their current role, three quarters of all leaders gave estimates of five years or less, with 42 percent of Greater Boston leaders saying three to five years and 56 percent of leaders throughout New England saying two years or less. At the same time, organizations report a startling dearth of succession plans in place.

“During this period of widespread leadership transition, we hope this report will be a catalyst for dialogue and action on the part of funders, donors, boards, leaders and their staff,” said Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan.

The Boston Foundation worked closely with researchers from Third Sector New England, a nonprofit that partners with people, other nonprofits and philanthropists in the social sector to strengthen leadership, facilitate learning and guide strategic thinking toward reaching their goals and achieving their missions. The report points up challenges that organizations face that may contribute to leader departures, such as fundraising, board governance or fighting the fear that investing in staff development will be seen as frivolous overhead. Lead author Hez Norton said, “This is a moment of uncertainty but also of opportunity to prepare Boston for new models of nonprofit leadership. We cannot continue to expect nonprofits to realize their potential under current constraints … and we cannot expect the best leaders to be willing to take the reins of these organizations under these conditions.”

Greater Boston nonprofits stand at a historic inflection point given the unprecedented volume of leadership transition both within and outside of the sector. While several reports over the past decade have predicted a “crisis” created by the mass exit of Baby Boomers and others from nonprofit leadership roles, combined with insufficient investment in succession planning and leadership development within these organizations, Opportunity in Change proposes that these sobering realities be viewed through a new lens: not as a crisis but as an opportunity.

“Everyone has a stake in the nonprofit sector,” pointed out Jennifer Aronson, Associate Vice President for Programs at the Boston Foundation. “We all go to schools, to hospitals, to museums; we get services; we make donations. The sector’s health and success matters to us all, so it is incumbent upon all of us to recognize this wave of leader transitions as a high leverage, large scale opportunity and act.”

The report suggests three key actions to take: Start conversations now to make a succession plan; develop staff and cultivate leaders on an ongoing basis, especially tapping in to under-represented populations; and view transitions as an opportunity to calibrate the organizational structure beyond the “who” of the leadership role—think of it as planning for sustainability and not just succession.

“The ultimate goal, of course, is to position our entire sector so that it is poised for a future of unprecedented effectiveness and impact,” said the Boston Foundation’s Grogan.

The report will be released Friday, March 24, 2017, at an 8:30 a.m. forum at the Boston Foundation offices. Researchers will present findings, and a panel discussion and Q&A will follow, featuring Yolanda Coentro, CEO, Institute for Nonprofit Practice; Tammy Dowley-Blackman, Board Chair, Third Sector New England; Giles Li, Executive Director, Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center; and Richard Thal, Executive Director, JPNDC.


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the largest community foundations in the nation, with net assets of some $1 billion. In 2016, the Foundation and its donors made $100 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of more than $107 million. In celebration of its Centennial in 2015, the Boston Foundation launched the Campaign for Boston to strengthen the Permanent Fund for Boston, the principal endowment fund focused on the most pressing needs of Greater Boston. The Foundation is proud to be a partner in philanthropy, with more than 1,000 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, think tank and advocacy organization, commissioning research into the most critical issues of our time and helping to shape public policy designed to advance opportunity for everyone in Greater Boston. The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a distinct operating unit of the Foundation, designs and implements customized philanthropic strategies for families, foundations and corporations around the globe. For more information about the Boston Foundation and TPI, visit or call 617-338-1700.

Third Sector New Enland (TSNE) is a nonprofit organization working as a partner in social change. Through a dynamic mix of training programs, management and consulting services, research, fiscal sponsorship and community-based investments, TSNE shares knowledge and experience to enhance the capacity of its constituents—people, nonprofits and philanthropists—to become more adaptive, think innovatively, discover new opportunities and advance social change. TSNE is a partner, ally and incubator for an array of national and statewide capacity building networks, including the National Network of Fiscal Sponsors, the Nonprofit Centers Network, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, the Nonprofit Quarterly and a region-wide executive transition practice that focuses on nonprofit effectiveness and leadership change. TSNE has also published several groundbreaking original research reports that have been widely reviewed and shared with the sector.