Let me say it for the record: board term limits are for a reason!
But they can feel hard to enforce, can’t they?
There are two very real risks with board terms:
- The leaving board member will feel left out
Nobody likes it when people they care about feel left out. But here, this is probably inevitable. Anytime someone goes from “trusted inner circle” to treasured emeritus, they automatically leave regular communication channels. I’m amazed at how this hurt rational adults. Including me. But it’s just normal.
- Even worse, they may not want to come back when their “year off” is up
I think this is the biggest fear of boards. “What if we really let them go? Will they ever come back?”
Besides, if they are already doing the work, why mess with it? Working board members are really hard to find.
So boards often decide to “make an exception” for this one person. But I really think that’s a bad idea.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent note I sent a board I serve on:
I appear to be the lone dissenter.
I don’t think we should make this precedent. I think they should be given a one year “sabbatical.”
Term limits protect both the nonprofit and the individual board members. Everyone needs a break to avoid burnout and to allow them to come back with a fresh perspective and renewed vision.
And term limits make it so that new people have to step up or systems have to be changed to accommodate the new board.
And, what if one of us becomes a board member that the board doesn’t want? It’s far easier to say “your time is up, thank you so much, and good bye” if we haven’t made special accommodations for people.
Term limits aren’t about liking a person or not. They are about good governance.
Let’s honor them and us with a sabbatical.
Do you agree?
Done correctly, I think board term limits can be a great way to show respect for both the outgoing board member and respect for the nonprofit organization.
I think term limits are good for everyone. Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments!
To me the concept of requiring “one-year” off might make it easier to remove under-performing board members, but one would still presumably have many VERY long-serving board members. And I’m not against that – I think boards are enriched by having a few “old-timers” to serve as historians and give perspective (and, often, larger gifts).
What I prefer to the one-year off policy is a rigorous annual peer-to-peer review. The board chair, nominating committee member or other board leader would sit down with a current board member to review everything that board member brought to the table in the year just ending (gifts, contacts, in-kind, committee leadership, etc.).
They would then lay out on paper what that board member is willing to commit to for the coming fiscal year, and both parties would sign that document. That keeps everyone honest and makes it difficult – and uncomfortable – for someone to try “hiding out” on the board without pulling his or her own weight.
I absolutely dislike term limits!
Board ‘terms’ are essential and allow for reflective and evaluative moments in time for both the org and the volunteer.
‘Limits’ can be counter-productive and even disrespectful.
If someone has run their course, then work with them on an exit strategy. It isn’t as difficult as it sounds.
If someone is burned out, then let them go or re-define their role with the org or help them find happiness.
More oftentimes than not, board volunteers are our biggest and most influential donors. If we are truly “donor-centered,” then we aren’t in the business of saying ‘NO’ to a donor especially if they are super-productive and want to continue serving (and we want the same thing).
I believe donor-centered non-profit professionals are ‘dream-makers’. People who work with donors to help them realize their philanthropic dreams. If one of those things is ‘board service,’ (and they are a good fit and productive) then why turn them away?
I’ve always felt that term limits are for those who have problems with engaging in contructive conflict and managing their board. Term limits are a crutch for organizations who don’t know how to do solid board development (e.g. annual board evaluations, committee work plans, annual recommitment pledges, honest dialog, orientation, volunteer management, etc etc etc).
Marc, you’re one of my favorite fundraising personalities that I follow online, but I have to respectfully disagree. This was apparently a hot button for me that I didn’t knew existed. LOL Sorry
I couldn’t agree more. Board term limits are essential to an active and engaged board. My favorite strategy is to use “shorter” board terms (2 or 3 years) and then allow two terms in the bylaws before one year off is required.
Thanks for the great article!
Brian and Erik:
Thanks for your comments. I agree that boards that undergo the rigor you suggest would be high performing. But I’m not sure it’s realistic in communities that have “all the same people” on the boards.
Having said that, I just heard of one board member that left a board for one of a like organization in the same community because the first organization didn’t challenge him enough.
Isn’t that nice to hear!
It should shake many of us out of our complacency!
IME, term limits are smart governance.
Sure, the board could be asked to perform a review annually, and remove under-performing colleagues. In practice, I’ve not seen that happen. No one is willing to pull the plug – and so people continue on… and on…
Term limits are imposed from without. No one has to be the bad guy; it’s just the rules.
And if someone is particularly engaged, but due for that one-year break, they’ll stay engaged. It’s just a year.
There’s really no reason that a good donor and board/former board member can’t continue to be engaged – both from the point of view of the organization (why shouldn’t they continue to hear from you regularly?) and from the donor/board member’s.
Too much dead weight is terrible governance. It’s contagious and it starts to infect the entire board and the entire organization.
Build in a break. Use it to gracefully say goodbye to people who should no longer be on the board. Use it to recharge people who should continue.
I’ve had success with the practice of having detailed reviews, but I will also admit that I was deeply involved in those as a staff person, which I know is not best practices.
Ideally the board polices itself, but I often find this doesn’t happen the way it should because of the relationships between board members, and the difficulty in finding stellar board leaders. So as the E.D. or VP of Development I’ve often been a key player in the annual review process.
I’m also ambivalent about term limits for directors (though not for board officers). Of course, I’ve worked with many a tired board whose directors and officers have been in their positions forever and are no longer adding great value to the organization. It is difficult for boards without strong governance practices to bounce fellow members when they are no longer performing.
But I also care about the durability of critical relationships for nonprofits and organizational memory. I have written about term limits from this perspective in my blog article Lions and Longevity: http://www.ceffect.com/blog/better-boards/lions-and-longevity/
Long-term relationships with key stakeholders are absolutely critical to the success of our organizations. We have to be very intentional about how we maintain those relationships. If it’s not the executive director, then the keepers of those relationships and knowledge need to be embedded somewhere else in the leadership of the organization. The board is one place for that.
The moral: one-size never fits all.
I agree with Gayle that one size doesn’t fit all. The decision regarding term limits is one that has to fit with the culture and vision for that particular organization.
That being said, I personally am for term limits. New board members bring energy and a fresh perspective. I also see term limits as being an opportunity to refresh leadership, not only for the board, but for committees.
Although term limits do sometimes help ease out difficult or non-performing board members, ideally I’d prefer to see the board show some compassionate accountability in dealing with those situations as they occur.
I’ve always liked the idea of having an emeritus or advisory council for experienced directors who have the history and still are dedicated to the organization. Has anyone here had experience with that model?
In the ideal world there wouldn?t be a need for term limits but of course we don?t live in the ideal. Most Boards do not and cannot adequately monitor individual Board performance so the idea of using that sort of review process as a means to throw off underperforming, or worse harmful, Board members isn?t realistic for the most part. There might be the occasional organization that is able to function in this sort of way but most are not.
As far as losing good people or institutional memory, that shouldn?t be a problem if they are that good or institutional. Taking a year off and working with the organization in another capacity is a way to keep them engaged and also a way to refresh and re-energize them. A lot of folks might not have the wherewithal to know when it is time to leave or might not want to abandon their post if term limits aren?t in place.
Lastly, if the departure of one individual causes significant harm to an organization and/or its Board, then there are bigger problems afoot. Frankly, most of the time this perceived harm is just that, a perception. As one of my favorite Board members would often quote in Board meetings, ?The graveyards are full of indispensable men.? (I think that is attributed to De Gaulle).
Thanks everyone, great conversation!
For me, I think that the sabbatical year is a waste if there isn’t an intentional strategy in place to keep the relationship. Perhaps the sabbatical-izing board member could host events or plug in to the organization in other ways.
Has anyone seen this done well?
“Term Limits”? the perception of those two words are perceived by most with negativity. It implies ‘the end’ or ‘finality’ before you even get started. Personally, I am in favor of the concept of term limits; simply good governance. For purposes of sustainability a progressive, forward thinking Board is vital. “Not any one of us is smarter than all of us together”. Keeping that mind, there is a way to accomplish such, retain donors and avoid heartfelt disappointment. Promotion. If you have a board member that has served since inception or for a long period of time, but is rarely engaged?title with director emeritus. Create committees or an advisory council with chairpersons designed for their specific gifts/talents, carefully select others to report to said chairpersons. Generally speaking the outcome will be one of two results: with a new title (chairperson) frequently approaches the role with renewed vigor. Those reporting to that specific chair tend to increase productivity for the opportunity to gain the ‘chair’ title at a later date. This approach avoids the time consuming, difficult task of detailed reviews and the negative personal aspects of those reviews. It typically motivates all in a positive manner and allows new forward thinking, fresh faces to emerge.
I love the idea of “promoting” people off the board! What a creative way to honor service but address ineffectiveness.