In over ten years of consulting, I can’t think of a single issue as controversial as term limits for governing board members. I get it – I really do see all sides of this issue. I understand the organization’s hesitance to “lose” great board members (or less than great board members, but generous donors) through term limits and rotation. I also understand the feelings board members have, especially founding or very long-term board members. There are several reasonable arguments that can be made to ignore the best practice of term limits for board members and trust me, I’m fairly sure I’ve heard them all. But only twice in ten years of consulting have I been persuaded that this is in the best interest of the organization – and in those two instances, this was only a short-term fix. I counseled the organizations to keep their eye on the prize – an effective board. Worries about hurt feelings, lost donations, gaps in institutional memory and more are often irrational and exaggerated and can certainly be addressed with the right strategy.
For me, the bottom line of the term limit debate is that if we care about the long-term sustainability and success of our organizations, term limits are critical. Building a diverse board; cultivating new leaders; expanding our base of “friends”; giving folks a light at the end of the tunnel; and in some cases, giving ourselves an “out” to break ties with a troublesome board member are important considerations. Another key consideration is the myth that rotating off a nonprofit governing board member means goodbye. Sometimes is does and it should. But just because someone rotates off the governing board, this doesn’t mean they will no longer be a great advocate, volunteer and/or donor. Engaging former board members in committee service, advisory councils and other roles is a successful strategy.
Implementing term limits when the board isn’t sure it’s “on board” must be addressed with caution and careful planning. As I’ve told more clients than I can count, boards can be a slow moving train – patience is absolutely necessary.
Let’s discuss. How has your organization addressed the hot topic of term limits? What’s worked and what hasn’t?