When Dennis Marble took the reins at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter in January 1996, it was just a job — a way to make ends meet.
“This was a not a mission-driven decision,” he said in a recent interview. “I really just needed to earn a paycheck.”
But 20 years later, as he prepares to retire as executive director at the end of this year, his perspective has changed.
“This job has challenged me to use everything I know,” Marble said. “I have had to look inside, define my governing values and identify who I was serving. And for me, that means serving the community just as much as it means serving anyone who comes to our doors.”
Marble, 66, is among scores of gray-haired Maine nonprofit leaders who are expected to retire in coming months and years, making room for big changes in mission-driven organizations supporting human services, the arts, education, health care, the environment and other public concerns.
The figures in Maine track national percentages, but Maine’s fragile economy and its status as the oldest state in the nation confer extra significance. With about 6,500 nonprofits in Maine employing one in every seven Mainers, experts say the shift in leadership could have wide-ranging social and economic repercussions.
According to a 2015 study by the organization Third Sector New England, nearly 43 percent of Maine’s nonprofit leaders are in the 55 to 64 age group and another 13 percent are 65 and older. Nearly 30 percent expect to leave their positions within the next two years, and another 35 percent between three and five years from now.
Challenges and opportunities
Jeff Wahlstrom, 58, founder and president of Starboard Leadership Consulting in Bangor, says this changing of the nonprofit guard presents challenges and opportunities to retiring leaders and the governing boards they work with.
“Transition provides the opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes and new energy,” he said, but responsible organizations must plan ahead to make the best of a change in leadership.
Medium and small organizations face the greatest challenge in succession planning, Wahlstrom said, because larger nonprofits such as hospitals, universities and research institutions typically have more people in leadership positions and highly engaged boards, making them better positioned to launch a search or promote from within when a leader retires.
By contrast, many smaller nonprofits are still led by their ideals-driven, baby-boom founders.
“This is the generation that was going to change the world,” Wahlstrom, 58, said. “They have brought incredible passion and tireless dedication to their organizations, often for low pay. But they haven’t always done a great job of building internal leadership capacity below them or in other ways preparing their organizations for a transition in leadership.”
He said nonprofits caught off guard by a change in leadership may come under new scrutiny from funding organizations, including public sources and private foundations.
“Funders are concerned that organizations are not preparing for the transition to new leadership,” he said. “They may have developed a great relationship with a strong, capable, very experienced leader, but one day they look at this gray-haired person sitting across the table from them, and they can’t help but wonder what comes next.”
The challenge is greatest for nonprofit board members who have relied on the judgements of a longtime executive director and who may be only peripherally informed about the operations of the organization they oversee.
“Over time, a board can get very comfortable — too comfortable, sometimes — with an organization’s leader. And suddenly, when that leader announces a plan to retire, the board has to get engaged again — or maybe for the first time,” Wahlstrom said.
Succession planning is key
Scott Schnapp, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, is approaching 60 and plans to leave his position next June, after 21 years with the organization — 13 of those years at the helm. The Maine Association of Nonprofits provides professional development, management training, political advocacy and and other support to nonprofit organizations of all sizes from across the state.
Schnapp said the wave of boomer retirements and the need for succession planning affects the for-profit sector as well as the nonprofit sector.
“But businesses plan for it because of market competition. It’s more hardwired in the for-profit sector,” he said. However, nonprofits, especially smaller ones, may be unprepared for the destabilizing impact of a leader’s retirement and the coinciding opportunity to re-evaluate future plans for the organization.
“A leadership shift can be a great opportunity to lead an organization forward,” he said, especially if leaders and boards have worked together ahead of time to prepare.
Funders pay close attention
At the Maine-based John T. Gorman Foundation, which funds projects that support youth, families and communities, president and CEO Tony Cipollone, 62, said changing leadership at a grantee organization is of great interest.
“We always want to know what it might signify in terms of a change in mission, philosophy, community programs or partnerships,” he said. “We’ll ask the board of directors if this is an opportunity to retool the organization or if it will move forward in the same direction, and we’ll ask about the kind of person they’re seeking, in terms of values, priorities, experience and leadership styles. All of this can change with a change in leadership.”
Although Maine’s population of ambitious young professionals isn’t large, he has seen no shortage of young adults committed to issues of social justice and community improvement.
“These themes are common across the country,” said Cipollone, who previously served as a vice president at the influential Annie E. Casey Foundation. “The challenge in Maine is, how do we do a better job of grooming our next generation of leaders, or how do we broaden the pool by bringing people in from out of state?”
At the Maine Community Foundation, recently installed president and CEO Steven Rowe, 62, who served as Maine’s attorney general from 2001 to 2009, said the Maine Community Foundation works closely with grantees to ensure their preparedness for a change in leadership as well as for their overall health and sustainability.
Rowe pointed out that many capable leaders stay on the job well into their 60s and 70s and later.
“Some of the best and brightest CEOs work in the nonprofit sector,” he said. “The most important qualities in a leader are knowledge, experience, skill and creativity. And in many cases, these attributes increase with age.”
Passing the torch at the Bangor shelter
Marble said his board responded well when he announced he was thinking about retiring. It happened about a year and a half ago, at a daylong retreat for staff and board members. The topic was succession planning.
“To them, it was just an academic exercise,” Marble said. “But then I raised my hand like a student and said, ‘Actually, I am planning to leave within a couple of years.’ That added a lot of focus to the day.”
The board recently named Marble’s replacement: Rowena Griffin, 46, will be promoted to the top position after 5½ years as the shelter’s program manager. Her official start date is Jan. 1, 2016.
She looks forward to the challenge, Griffin said, but doesn’t plan any immediate changes at the shelter.
“As I see things that might work better, I’ll make changes as they’re needed,” she said, adding that Marble and the board have been “incredibly supportive and helpful” during the transition.
And while Marble declined to specify how he expects to fill his days once he retires, he hinted that he would not stray far from the issue of homelessness that he has come to champion.