Dear Nonprofiteer, Old staff members never die, and they don’t fade away, either

Dear Nonprofiteer,

We’re a mid-sized agency housed in our own, extremely cranky building. For the past twenty years one man has been our key to building operations. He knows where everything is and, more important, how everything works: he’s the man who can figure out when the boiler needs a stern talking-to instead of a replacement. His expertise has saved us a great deal of money as well as aggravation over the years.

But he’s now in his late 70s and this is a physical job and he’s simply not able to do it very well anymore. We don’t want to reward his service with a swift kick in the pants, but we need someone who can do the job. How can we get him to go away so we can get what we need?

Signed, Mystified by Mechanical Stuff

Dear Mystified,

You’ve put your finger on an intertwined pair of problems afflicting most non-profits: they haven’t made any arrangements for their employees to get pensions when they retire, and they haven’t made any arrangements for their employees to be replaced when they retire. In HR parlance, they’ve neglected both retirement planning and succession planning.

So, fine, you’re here now. What do you do? Focus first on succession planning, that is, the process of getting Mr. Miracle Mechanic replaced and out the door. Sit down with him right now and say to him what you’ve said to me: that he’s a genius, that you couldn’t have done everything you’ve done for the past 20 years without him, but that–as he knows better than anyone–it’s a tough physical job as well as an intellectual one, and it’s simply unreasonable to expect him to go on doing those same tough physical tasks for too many more years; and so you’re going to hire him an assistant. Then do so: part-time at first, but with the understanding that the assistant’s time commitment and responsibilities will grow.

Have Miracle Mechanic participate in interviewing the guy/gal, but make it clear that you’re not asking if he needs help: you’re telling him. If he says, “I don’t need any help–I’m fine,” be prepared to give an example or two of things he isn’t able to do anymore, and then simply say, “This is the Board’s decision.” (Even if it’s not: what good is having a Board if an Executive Director can’t blame it when necessary? Just make sure every Board member knows what’s happening, so nobody gets blindsided by an hysterical phone call from MM.)

One of two things will happen: MM will quit in a rage (in which case you’ve accomplished your goal of getting him out of the way, though make sure that if he does quit you get his keys immediately: never let a disgruntled employee work out his notice!), or MM will go along, sulkily. The high probability of sulkiness means that you need to hire an assistant whose people skills equal or exceed his mechanical skills, because his task will be to debrief MM about every detail of operating the building while purporting to do no more than relieve the older man of the most physically burdensome work.

Succession handled, move on to retirement planning. A year from now you’re going to be ready to put MM out to pasture, and it would be civilized to offer him at least a retirement bonus if not a full-blown pension. Have the Board sit down now and figure out, first, what it will be able to afford to offer MM in 12 or 18 months, and second, what it proposes to do about the impending retirements of everyone else on your staff. Use this problem as an opportunity to plug a hole in your agency’s social safety net. Get with an accountant or an insurance executive and figure out the least expensive pension or 401(k) plan you can offer, and how to pay for it.

These are tough times for nonprofits to consider adding expenses. But better do it now rather than wait til the next time you need someone to retire. As virtually every economist and talking-head will remind you, Social Security wasn’t intended as a comprehensive retirement system; private businesses were supposed to go on offering pensions. Nonprofits have ignored this responsibility for many years, because they could: their workforces were young, often female, not very demanding. Those days are over.

So: first succession planning, then retirement planning. Hop to it!

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3 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Old staff members never die, and they don’t fade away, either”

  1. Yana Davis Says:

    This process is complicated exponentially when the employee in question happens to be a CEO whom the board believes walks on water and regularly has personal lunches with the deity – but doesn’t. Other staffers, who are doing his or her work, and getting little or no credit, are not even in a position to ask the CEO to move aside, much less subtly arrange it. After all, the board wouldn’t listen.

  2. Heartburn Home Remedy Says:

    I noticed that this is not the first time you mention the topic. Why have you chosen it again?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Nonprofit agencies are particularly liable to keep employees around after having burned them out. Commitment to mission comes to substitute for every other aspect of employee competence. Because it’s a common problem, readers continue to write in about it; and because it’s an important issue, I continue to address it.

      I also think it’s disgraceful that agencies devoted to the public interest so commonly neglect the interests of their employees, as the many non-profits without pension plans do.

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