The Infinite Possibilities Of Term Limits

Nonprofit board trends imageA healthy board is essential to a strong organization and there are many ways to achieve a strong, dedicated, high-functioning board. But there are just as many ways to overwork, overstress, and overuse board members – not to mention scare off potential new blood. Term limits are one of the ways to help you overcome the hurdles to a great board and enhance your organization’s strength.

Why are term limits so controversial? Change is hard, particularly when people and personalities are involved. There are other reasons anti-term limit advocates list, but first let’s focus on the potential benefits of term limits.

  • Every organization evolves, and so will the needs that board members can fill. If your five-year strategic plan succeeds, you may require new skills, experiences and knowledge in your Board and the members of the Board who conceived the plan may not be the ones to lead you through the next phase of your agency’s development.
  • Board members’ lives change too, and so will their ability to commit time, efforts to and resources you. Seemingly small changes like acquiring a second home, discovering scuba diving, or even something as simple as having children represent a new stage of an individual’s life that can shift focus away from your organization. Keep these individuals engaged by offering different or, perhaps, less time consuming opportunities –possibly even something that correlates to his or her evolving interests.
  • A potential candidate will find a set term much more palatable. A limitless commitment is hard to ask of someone and selfish of the organization to expect.
  • This is an easier way to remove a non-functioning, unpleasant board member or shift a person to a position that would be a better fit for everyone involved. Secret ballots during the election process can remove a person that has a hard time looking at the big picture but is great with details. And yet, this person might be ideal to serve the organization by supervising a fundraiser or monthly newsletter.
  • Compare your organization’s criteria for a 3-year term vs. a 15-year term board member. How many people will have the qualities necessary to fill the latter slot?
  • You can provide yourself with a continual infusion of new ideas as well new, effective, motivated people into your organization.
  • This lays the foundation for an organizational environment instead of a personality-based organization. What does this mean? Any organization that has had the same board for 10+ years will be a direct reflection of those individuals and their personalities. Term limits keep the focus on the agency’s mission, vision and values with personal interpretations ever-changing and improving.
  • The concentration of power and focus will not be centered in a small stagnant group.

The other side of the coin

  1. “Isn’t setting term limits just a way to prevent leadership from having to ask someone to leave the board?” Fear of confrontation should not be a primary reason to do anything, but on that same note, fear of losing board members is not a good enough reason to avoid term limits. A term limit provides everyone the opportunity to perform their duties or find other responsibilities or conversely, to provide committed individuals with alternate opportunities (see number 3 below).
  2. “What about the disruption that is caused throughout the organization whenever the board turns over?” Term limits do not mean that every board member starts at the same time in the same year. It means that his/her term from his/her starting date is 2 or 3 years with a predetermined number of possibilities for re-election.
  3. “We can’t ask __(fill in the blank)__ to leave the board for a year! What if he/she loses interest in us or gains interest in another, similar organization?” Fear of losing a valuable board member is probably the most listed reason for avoiding term limits. There are many ways to ensure active involvement during their time off the board. Offer a trustee position or a place on an advisory committee. Engage them to serve or lead a committee. You can even establish a board alumni council. Your alumni will appreciate the change of pace and have a better understanding of the organization from an advisory or participant’s point of view, and not only from the board’s perch.

Still not convinced? Consider checking the board by-laws at organizations you respect. Do they have term limits? Probably. If not, find out whether they have considered it and why they made this decision. If nothing else, you have a case study on which to base your own decision.

And, if you want to know what we would suggest for your organization, send an email by clicking here and we will engage with you around best practices in nonprofit governance and leadership development.