Key Takeaways

  • Jim Knickman concluded his term as Chair of the NCOA Board of Directors, completing 10 years of service to the organization.

  • Over his 40-year career, Knickman worked in academia and philanthropy, with a focus on policy and research to improve the nation’s health care system.

  • We asked him to reflect on his time at NCOA.

On October 13, 2021, Jim Knickman concluded his term as Chair of the NCOA Board of Directors, completing 10 years of service to the organization. Over his 40-year career, Knickman worked in academia and philanthropy, with a focus on policy and research to improve the nation’s health care system. He was a vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and President of the New York State Health Foundation. We asked him to reflect on his time at NCOA.

What compelled you to serve as NCOA Board Chair? 

I served on the Board for seven years prior to being called to serve at the chairmanship level. To be asked by my fellow Board colleagues to serve as Chair was an incredible honor. 

I spent half my career as an academic doing research on how to improve the financial well-being of older adults and addressing the problems of senior housing and care. The other half, I worked in philanthropy and funded various initiatives linked to aging. Topics related to aging were always at the center of my interest and passion.  

jim knickman and kenneth cooper
Jim Knickman (left) and Kenneth Cooper, MD, MPH, winner of a 2009 NCOA Trailblazer in Aging award.

What was it like to lead NCOA through a CEO transition and during COVID?

At the same time we were going through the pandemic, I announced my retirement and Jim Firman (former NCOA President & CEO) announced his retirement. The Board then asked me to step in to be interim CEO. It certainly was not how I planned to spend my first summer of retirement! 

But the experience was very rewarding. There are so many great people doing amazing work at NCOA. As interim CEO, I recognized how crucial our staff are. When you serve on a Board, you typically interact with the Executive Team or fellow Board members. But it’s the organization’s staff who are creating real change in the aging space. It’s incredible what NCOA has done and achieved during these unusual times.

Over the course of my life, some of my best friends have been older people.  I realized at the end of their lives that I got much more out of it than they did. We must let Americans know that. You get what you give when you help friends, family, and loved ones who are seniors. – Jim Knickman

What moments during your tenure do you cherish?

One is hiring Ramsey Alwin as the new NCOA President and CEO. I believe she is the future of the organization and a leading innovator in aging. She is doing a wonderful job reshaping our future forward. 

Another is when the Board developed ideas to create digital platforms to help older adults with resources and advice on a variety of age-related issues. Another is the strategic planning work we conducted with both NCOA insiders and outside leaders in aging. At the time, it was a gusty thing to do to bring in outsiders, and I felt proud of the ideas that emerged from that collaboration.

Jim’s future-focused strategic guidance and leadership have put NCOA on a path to accelerate our growth and social impact in the years ahead. I am forever grateful for his mentorship and sage advice, especially during the unprecedented days of the pandemic. – Ramsey Alwin, NCOA President & CEO

Where do you see NCOA’s future heading?

I see us focusing on three areas. First is influencing public policy. You can’t be involved with a big issue like aging without having a larger presence and voice around public policy. 

The second is amplifying our direct-to-consumer model to help older adults have better finances and better access to services. It is a clever model that involves working with the private sector to partner on initiatives that are good for seniors and good for them as active community stewards. 

The third is reshaping and rebuilding how we connect to community-based organizations. We have always been important in the aging network, but we need to ramp it up more if we want to have impact widely. 

Jim’s leadership during one of the most tumultuous times in the organization’s history goes above and beyond the normal call to serve. He shared the pride the staff feel when they know their work does indeed make a difference. 

– Carol Zernial, former NCOA Board Chair

What are the most valuable lessons you learned while serving as Board Chair?

You can’t please everyone. There are times when Board members did not agree on certain paths or goals, but we must be comfortable making tough decisions that are in the best interest of the organization and move forward. Second is the importance of an involved and high-quality CEO and a solid Board. You need both, and both are crucial to be successful.

How will you stay connected to NCOA’s mission?

I am excited about where our incoming Board Chair Kathy Greenlee will take NCOA. I will still stay engaged in equitable aging topics. We have new Board members who are capable experts in the aging field. I am very proud of the Board makeup and what it represents today. 

Life beyond NCOA … what’s next for you?

I was appointed to the Council on Aging for my little town in Massachusetts, putting me in charge of fundraising. It feels good to be involved with folks one on one. I have always worked on big issues that had long timetables, so it feels good to be at the ground level working locally within my community.

jim knickman and jim firman dancing at 2019 Age+Action Conference
Jim Knickman (left) and Jim Firman (right) enjoy a turn on the dance floor at the 2019 Age+Action Conference.

I am personally grateful to Jim for his partnership, mentorship, and friendship over many years.” 

– Jim Firman, former NCOA President & CEO