Power Shift
Dozens of the Pittsburgh-area’s top institutions are going through leadership changes. The turnover could echo for decades.

After more than 30 years at Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania — nearly 20 of them as CEO — Mike Smith was primed to retire.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. He realized his nonprofit, which employs nearly 1,200 people, was facing the toughest financial challenge in its century-long history. 

“I couldn’t just walk away,” said Smith, who navigated furloughs, a 90% decline in operating revenue and a suspension of Goodwill’s thrift business. “We did everything possible to ensure the safety of our employees and reduce risk as much as possible.”

The human service agency recovered from those bleak months in 2020, bringing back workers, adopting hybrid work arrangements and raising wages. But as Goodwill turns the page, so is Smith: In October, he joined about 15 other top leaders who have left large local nonprofits since mid-2021. They led organizations ranging from the Women & Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania to the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council to 412 Food Rescue to healthcare giant UPMC — some for decades.

Veterans of the sector suggest pandemic-influenced retirement decisions, fatigue, the so-called “Great Resignation” and generational shifts may be concentrating turnover at the executive level.

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“We’re all reaching that age where we’re ready to retire,” said Caren Glotfelty, who retired in 2022 as executive director at the Allegheny County Parks Foundation after seven years, replaced by Joey-Linn Ulrich. COVID-19 signaled for some that it was time for a change. “Either we’re exhausted, the job had gotten too hard or we were reexamining priorities for how we wanted to spend our time.”

As new leaders try to redouble diversity practices and access to human services, they’re also negotiating societal shifts — including a tight labor market that’s made it harder for nonprofits to retain essential employees and volunteers.

No crush of applications

At the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium, managers historically had seen “people lining up to take zoo jobs,” said President and CEO Dr. Jeremy Goodman.

That changed over the last couple of years, he said. Because the zoo is a nonprofit, it’s not able to pay its employees — especially front-line employees such as cashiers and ticket-takers — salaries as high as what they’d get at a for-profit business.

Excluding food and retail jobs, seasonal hires at the zoo probably average about 175 to 200 a year, Goodman said. In 2022, the organization struggled to sign on 70.

Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium President and CEO Dr. Jeremy Goodman (Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock/Pittsburgh Magazine)

Those who take the jobs now have more opportunities to experience zoo wildlife up close, a perk that hadn’t been so organized before.

“I think it’s probably helping us retain people more than it is recruiting at this point, quite honestly,” said Goodman, who succeeded former zoo CEO Dr. Barbara Baker in October 2021, who stepped down after 31 years.

In an online survey in late 2021, about a quarter of participating nonprofits reported openings for 20% to 29% of their jobs, according to the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, D.C.

“All of us are in the same boat,” said Goodman. “Nobody’s really figured [hiring and retention] out yet, but we’re more than happy to see what others are doing and what’s worked.”

Making matters worse, volunteerism has dipped. A Gallup poll found that 56% of U.S. respondents reported volunteering time in 2021, down from 65% in 2013, 64% in 2017 and 58% in 2020.

“But the demand from the kids we’re serving is still there,” said Becky Flaherty, who succeeded Jan Glick as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh in November 2021. Glick had been in her position for 14 years.

Hiring with purpose

At Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, Sydney Etheredge said her January 2022 arrival as CEO and president coincided with “the biggest challenge to our movement” — the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in June.

Western Pennsylvania has a chance to make a difference for residents of nearby states where policymakers are restricting reproductive rights, said Etheredge, who succeeded longtime President and CEO Kimberlee Evert, who served for 37 years. But fulfilling demand hinges on ample staffing and on coordination with other abortion providers, she added.

Shortly after starting the top job, Etheredge added a full-time human resources staffer to streamline recruitment and onboarding of new workers, with an eye toward diversity. She wants Planned Parenthood visitors to feel its movement’s diversity “when you walk through the door.”  

“Whatever we build for our movement now that Roe is gone, whatever we build in its place will be more inclusive and equitable than what there was before,” Etheredge said.

Recruitment is key, too, for the 19-branch Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. By late September, the system was continuing to restore pre-pandemic operating hours, according to President Andrew Medlar, who succeeded Mary Frances Cooper in spring 2022 as the top executive.

The library system counted about 420 employees as of early autumn. It recently hired its inaugural director of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. Medlar said a focus on deepening diversity should help the libraries hire workers who reflect the neighborhoods they serve.

“It’s a challenge the libraries, especially public libraries, have struggled with,” he said. “It’s an area that we are really serious about in our hiring and are making sure that’s part of the process.”

Partnerships instead of competition

Where some nonprofits traditionally have seen one another as competition, they have begun to cooperate around workforce issues, said Dorothy Norris-Tirrell, interim president and chief learning officer at the Kansas City, Missouri-based Nonprofit Leadership Alliance. The national nonprofit helps train the workforce in the social sector.

Becky Flaherty, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh (Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock/Pittsburgh Magazine)

“There are some organizations that do very similar things,” she explained. “They don’t want to share too much. But I think there’s some real easing of that right now toward, ‘How can we work together to make a difference in our community?’”

Norris-Tirrell doesn’t see any precedent for the straits faced by the sector, which formalized and grew as a profession within the last several decades. But “I am ever hopeful that we’ll be stabilizing soon.”

At the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, CEO Camila Rivera-Tinsley describes cooperation as a pipeline for different perspectives that power a range of approaches to key issues for the region.

“When you leave out various voices, you’re only filtering problems, solutions and all kinds of things through this one type of lens. While that works out for the person whose lens it is, it brings us down as a society,” said Rivera-Tinsley who succeeded Heather Arnet, the foundation’s CEO for nearly two decades.

Like other leaders, Flaherty said she’s looking for opportunities to collaborate across nonprofits. Big Brothers Big Sisters, she said, has started exchanging observations about hiring with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania — which late last year named Chris Watts as its new CEO.Lately, it takes Flaherty’s group about two months to identify candidates it wants to hire.

Said Flaherty: “We’re working with anyone we can really get a great partnership with.” 

Adam Smeltz was a freelance contributor to Pittsburgh Magazine and PublicSource and is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

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Adam Smeltz

Adam Smeltz has been a reporter for the Centre Daily Times in State College, the Courier-Post in South Jersey and the former Knight Ridder bureau in Washington, D.C. His work focuses often on issues...