Nonprofit Retirement: Calculating retirement Needs & Exploring Choices

Part one in this three-part series on nonprofit retirement looks at calculating retirement needs and using that information to explore choices

Nonprofit Retirement: Calculating retirement Needs & Exploring Choices
9 mins read

It is especially hard for life-long nonprofit staff to save for retirement.

When Pat Joyce retired in March from the regional arts council she ran for 23 years, the agency and its board threw her an elegant gala dinner. They provided her with some beautiful thank you gifts… but a retirement fund wasn’t one of them.

Pat isn’t alone. One Blue Avocado reader told us, “When I started in a public service career I knew I would never be wealthy, but I didn’t think we would be at risk of living in poverty!” And another said wryly, “I’m in training to be a bag lady.”

Low salaries and nonexistent retirement funds make it especially hard for life-long nonprofit staff to save for retirement. But as another Blue Avocado reader commented, “My story isn’t much different from many in the for-profit sector, like a friend of mine who worked for an airline that went bankrupt and she lost all of her pension.” It’s worth remembering that retirement is uncertain for almost everyone in America, as financial giants like Bear Stearns collapse, leaving retirement plans full of worthless stock and as technology companies slash salaries… not to mention small business where retirement benefits are rare. A recent poll of CPAs (certified public accountants) found that retirement security is the top concern of their clients.

Let’s start with the two core questions that nonprofit people face: When can I retire? and How much money will I need?

Calculating retirement needs

Let’s say “Jackie” is a single woman at a community nonprofit who wants to retire at age 65. She currently makes $40,000 per year. If she expects to live to age 85, she’ll want to retire with enough funds to last 20 years. So a first step is to think about what she expects to spend in retirement.

If we use the financial planners’ rule of thumb that most people’s expenses fall 25% from when they were working, Jackie can expect to have living expenses of $30,000 per year once she has retired. So we need to figure out what will allow Jackie to retire at age 65, and live for 20 more years with an annual income of $30,000 year. (You can change your hoped-for retirement age, the age to which you expect to live, your projected expenses, and so forth, of course.)

This comes to a (pretty scary) $600,000. For some nonprofit staff, this number is well within reach, given, for instance, current savings, many years ahead in which to save, and property owned or expected to be inherited. But for others, this number can seem overwhelming. One key factor to consider is Social Security. If Jackie can expect to receive the national average of annual Social Security payments (currently $13,000), she’ll only need to retire with $341,000 — a far lower number.

One of the better online tools to help you refine this calculation can be found at AARP, the nonprofit association for seniors; it’s called the Retirement Calculator. The tool also allows you to put in your own predictions for inflation.

Even without these tools, you already knew that the earlier you start saving, the easier it is. If Jackie is 55 years old and has $10,000 in the bank already, she’ll still need to save about $2,000/month to reach her goal (assuming no other factors, such as working part-time at age 65, moving to a less expensive community and so forth). But if Jackie is 30 years old, even with no savings at all, she needs to save only $475/month (even assuming her salary never goes up).

Financial impacts and advisors

There are of course, many important factors that would change these numbers dramatically. The biggest ones are out of our individual control, such as what might happen with Social Security, inflation, changes in the stock market or other locations for our savings, and our physical ability to continue working. But you may want to discuss your retirement and savings plans with a financial advisor. Money is a personal matter, and it’s hard to find someone you trust, and who understands your lifestyle and your nonprofit background, to discuss it with. Blue Avocado readers said that they had asked board members for recommendations, other nonprofit staff, their banks, and the CPA who audits their organization. “It doesn’t mean I don’t have to do my homework,” wrote one Blue Avocado reader. “But it helps to have someone make sure I’m understanding everything and not missing anything.”

In hindsight, Pat realizes she should have pushed harder for the Council to have established a retirement plan. “I should have been more outspoken for myself and for my staff. We mustered the energy to hold a capital campaign to buy our own building, but we should have saved energy to support our people as well,” Pat says.

Regardless of your age or financial situation, working on a plan can give you the freedom and space to begin preparing for the rest of your life. In the next part of this series on nonprofit retirement, we’ll look at how organizations can help their staff with retirement benefits, and we’ll also answer the question of where to put the money you’re saving. No time to save? In Part 3 we’ll examine retirement options if you don’t have years ahead to build a nest egg. I’d love to hear more from Blue Avocado readers, too. (Click here to email Steve Zimmerman.)

We’ll close Part 1 with this note from a reader with a compelling story and a reminder of the context:

“I am 60 and have worked for various government and nonprofit agencies all of my career. In the first few jobs I had no useful retirement plan — either the vesting period was 10 years or there was no plan at all. However in the early 90’s I worked for an organization with a good plan and I was able to build up to $60,000 in my fund at one time.Â

“Three years ago I decided to move across the country to be closer to my mother who has Alzheimer’s and took a nonprofit job that didn’t pay my moving expenses. Within six months I was out of a job. Now I’m working for a great organization but making about $30,000 a year less than before. On top of dealing with my Mom and my husband’s severe health issues we have no retirement funds left. My husband has worked mostly for retail businesses that had no retirement plans at all.Â

“I am very much afraid that I will never be able to retire, and that health issues may drive us into bankruptcy at some point. [But I would] add that the U.S. lack of universal health care coverage and the lack of assistance to help people stay in their homes are still the biggest barriers to a secure retirement.”

Special thanks to Blue Avocado readers Pat Joyce, Christine Sharer, Alexandra Furnari, Dorene Warner, Kristin Kivington, Kathryn Reasoner, Sara Jones, Karin Wandrei, Pamela Rose, Ann Solomon, Pam Harper, Kathleen Blake, Heather Finke, Anne, Phillis, and Todd, for sharing their stories and viewpoints with us.

All posts in this series:

About the Author

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Steve Zimmerman, CPA, MBA, is principal at Spectrum Nonprofit Services, a finance and strategy consulting firm based in Milwaukee. With Jeanne Bell and Jan Masaoka, he co-authored Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, published by Jossey-Bass in 2011. In addition to writing the Finance & Strategy column for Blue Avocado and consulting to nonprofits across the country, Steve conducts train-the-consultant sessions how to use the book’s framework with nonprofits in strategic and/or business planning. His site includes templates and other materials based on the book.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

5 thoughts on “Nonprofit Retirement: Calculating retirement Needs & Exploring Choices

  1. Not-for-profit employees (especially Executive Directors, who should lead the way) need to press harder to establish employee retirement funds. Those who spent their lives helping others should not have to retire to poverty. There is nothing selfish about taking care of yourself.

    1. I have joined several Boards of small non-profits which had no retirement funds. As far as I’m concerned, it’s #1 priority: but it’s difficult to persuade admnistrative staff to establish such funds, even tho staff contribution is very small. Many staff members are young so retirement seems far, far away — and even a small contribution reduces their take-home pay. Once these funds are estabished, of course, new employees take them for granted.

  2. Two comments, one professional and one personal:
    ~ Funds have always been tight (to very tight) for my agency, but I am proud to state that even when times have been rough, the agency has always contributed to our employees’ retirement accounts. We do this for all employees who work 30 hours per week who have been at the agency at least one year. I know it’s not enough, but it is far more than nothing at all. Our employees appreciate it, and it has motivated some employees to increase their own retirement contributions.
    ~ Personally speaking, upon reading the article, I utilized AARP’s retirement calculator. It was an eye opener! I will definitely need to go back to the financial drawing board…
    Mindy Berkowitz
    Executive Director
    Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley

  3. I think that even smaller nonprofits that can offer a retirement plan (like a SIMPLE IRA) will be more competitive in the job market, even if the plan comes at the price of a small reduction in the salary offered. $30,000 with benefits looks better than $32,000 without to most of us who aren’t disciplined enough to start retirement accounts on our own. Offering a plan also makes a statement to discriminating job seekers that your organization is interested in employee well-being.

  4. CalNonprofits Insurance ServicesDirectors & Officers Liability Insurance | CalNonprofits Insurance Services says:

    I would like to add that planning for retirement isn’t just financial. Many of us who are healthy will have 2-3 or more decades ahead of us when we retire. We want meaning and purpose, engagement and daily pleasures in our lives. Taking time to reflect and plan intentionally gives us the opportunity to design what I call our “third act” to fulfill our dreams and pursue those activities we haven’t had time for. Finding meaning and active engagement contributes toward a longer and healthier life.
    Bev Scott

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