In Syracuse, New York, one museum is currently searching for its fourth executive director in 10 years. Although this turnover may seem high, it is consistent with national trends in the not-for-profit industry. In a 2006 nationwide survey of nonprofit leadership, 75 percent of executives stated that they planned to leave their jobs within the next 5 years.
As students in the Syracuse University Graduate Program in Museum Studies, we recognize that we are preparing to enter a field with high attrition. So we set out to determine why this trend exists and find out if there is hope for our success. Can we avoid falling into the trap of nonprofit executive turnover?
Syracuse has long been used for market research due to its ethnic and economic diversity. Its average demographics place it fifth in a list of the top test markets in the United States. We concluded that the city is an acceptable representation of the nation.
We conducted 19 interviews with executive directors, board members, and employees from nonprofit community organizations in an effort to identify the reasons for turnover as well as ways to prevent it. Nearly every interviewee cited unmet expectations and underdeveloped relationships as the key reasons for executive director turnover. In an industry where these problems seem unavoidable, each was also able to offer valuable insight on how to succeed.
One thing that we as interviewers also noticed was that executive directors with a reasonable tenure were deeply committed to their respective organizations. Whether they were driven by wanting to know that their effort made a difference or by pure passion, directors and board members who stuck around were sincerely devoted to their organizations' missions.