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Nonprofit leadership changes point to need for planning

| Sunday, May 12, 2013, 11:58 p.m.
Attack Theatre founders and artistic directors Michele de la Reza (left) and Peter Kope pose with Rebecca Himberger at the organization's rehearsal space in the Strip District.  Himberger is the new executive director of Attack Theatre.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Attack Theatre founders and artistic directors Michele de la Reza (left) and Peter Kope pose with Rebecca Himberger at the organization's rehearsal space in the Strip District. Himberger is the new executive director of Attack Theatre.

As investments soar from a record-high stock market, more nonprofit leaders may consider retiring, but many boards have put off talking about how to replace them, experts say.

“It would seem logical that the factors of people growing older and people having more investment income will accelerate,” said Peggy M. Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management. “There are forces at work that will make such planning a much more critical one for many organizations.”

A 2007 study by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations in Washington found that more than 16 percent of nonprofit leaders in the country were at least 60. During the recession, many chose to work until 70. Those who did so now might have money to retire, she said.

“Boards are not driving the succession conversations. It's an awkward conversation to have,” Outon said. “They don't think of themselves as employers.”

The need for succession planning was brought to the forefront recently when the board of Kuntu Repertory Theatre confirmed that it may close at the end of its current performance. Its artistic director, Vernell Lillie, 82, retired from the University of Pittsburgh.

“She's been very reluctant to have anyone succeed her that would carry the same philosophy,” said Garland M. McAdoo II, the president of Kuntu's board.

He said Kuntu does not have a succession plan and did not discuss getting one.

The Mattress Factory and Attack Theatre are examples of organizations that dealt successfully with the issue of succession, nonprofit leaders said.

Barbara Luderowski, president and co-director, founded the Mattress Factory in 1977. Michael Olijnik became co-director in 2008.

“Obviously, should one of the co-directors leave, we have another in place to continue leadership,” marketing manager Mandy Young wrote in an email. ”However, if both co-directors should leave, the Mattress Factory has a well considered plan in place, which is a result of work with consultants several years back.”

Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope founded Attack Theatre in 1994 with a $10,000 budget in the attic of their Park Place apartment. From the original staff of two artistic directors, it grew to 10 administrators and company dancers with a $600,000 budget. It shares space in the Strip District with the Pittsburgh Opera.

With the average dancer retiring at 35, the husband-and-wife team in their mid-40s have contemplated the dance troupe's future for several years.

“We have lived and breathed the inevitable progression of our bodies since we were probably teenagers,” de la Reza said. “That's something quite overt and talked about. It's not a taboo subject.”

As a result, Attack Theatre hired Donna Goyak as general director in 2006 to firm up its finances. She left, as planned, five years later. Rebecca Himberger, who held other jobs with the theater, became executive director in July.

De la Reza said the company will begin strategic planning this summer that includes discussing succession.

Joyce Rothermel, the founding board member of the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, announced in 2010 her intention to retire as CEO a year later. The current CEO, Lisa Scales, said the one-year notice gave the food bank time to meet with staff to assess the organization's needs, hire a consultant to conduct a national search, and give Rothermel and her successor a three-month overlap.

Her replacement, Jermaine Hussar, left in a year to return to South Carolina, and Scales, then chief operating officer, was promoted.

For some organizations, closing may be the solution when a leader leaves, said Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

“Sometimes in creative organizations, the product is driven by a few people, and they surround themselves with others that believe in that,” Swain said. “If that person decides not to continue, it's a big question for any organization, particularly one that's founder-driven, to decide where we go from here.”

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or

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