Which CEOs Are Leaving Quickest?

A surprising sector leads the way. For now, experts can’t figure out why.

This year has seen turnover at the top of tech companies, automakers, and retailers. But under the radar, it’s the CEOs of food banks, hospitals, schools, and other nonprofits who have really been heading for the exits.

According to a new analysis, 174 nonprofit and government sector CEOs left their posts in the first six months of 2022, a 39% jump from the same period in 2021. This year, the industry accounted for 22% of all CEO departures. Overall, 774 CEOs left in 2022 through June, a 20% increase from the 2021 pace. 

Experts believe many nonprofit bosses are out of gas after trying to handle the unique situations they found themselves in, on top of the pandemic-era challenges most other leaders have faced. “We’re not sure if it’s burnout or just a reevaluation of their careers, but lots of people are stepping down,” says Jodi Weiss, senior client partner at Korn Ferry and practice leader of the firm’s Professional Search Nonprofit and Higher Education practice.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that nonprofit CEOs would join everyone else as part of the Great Resignation. Although the number has been leveling off since the economy began to slow this spring, there were more than 40 million instances of people quitting their jobs in 2021. Many nonprofit bosses, who stayed at their posts during the worst parts of the pandemic, are now stepping down. “They’ve had ten years of work effort and emotional investment in just two years,” says Brendan Gallagher, a managing consultant for Korn Ferry’s Nonprofit and Higher Education Practice  

During the pandemic, many nonprofits have had unprecedented demand for their services. They often strained to meet that demand while also trying to keep their own employees safe. Compounding matters, many nonprofits saw their membership revenues decimated early in the pandemic as many of their members cut back because they lost their jobs or had to save money for their own needs. “There was lots of reimagining of business models at nonprofits and professional societies,” says Lorraine Lavet, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of the firm’s National Association Specialty practice.

Health care and education nonprofits were particularly hard-hit. “CEOs in those areas are now seeing the back end of it and heading out the door,” says John Long, senior client partner at Korn Ferry and sector leader of the firm’s North America Retail practice.

In addition, many nonprofit organizations have seen their causes—for better or worse—politicized over the last several years. Some CEOs, while not leaving their posts, have asked to relocate to areas where, as Weiss says, “they can do their job and not deal with the politics.”

Much like many for-profit sector firms, nonprofits also have been pushed over the last two years to diversify their ranks, creating greater stress for leadership. About 87% of nonprofit CEOs in the US were white in 2019, down from 90% in 2016. Similarly, roughly 78% of nonprofit board members were white in 2019, down from 84% in 2016, according to Board Source, a nonprofit that tracks this information. “You’d think these places would be attractive to underrepresented groups,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Ironically, the turnover at the top is coming at a time when many executives might be looking at nonprofit- and government-sector roles. Often during economic downturns those areas project a level of stability that for-profit organizations do not.