Term limits for board members are a tricky subject. When you are first starting a non-profit organization, the board is often the sole source of labor until the organization gathers enough resources to hire staff. At that point, you may not even want to consider creating any rules that might force the departure of any of the dedicated people who share in your vision.
Why Term Limits?
In the long term though, it is going to be important to replenish the energy and ideas that the board brings to the organization. Members of the founding cohort may start to get burned out after a number of years and prefer the status quo when faced with the concept of marshaling the energy required to evolve the organization to embrace new challenges. Among these challenges might be finding new sources of funding and new members can bring their own connections and ideas toward that end.
The length of a board member’s term is a delicate matter. You don’t want it so long that progress is impeded. Yet if it is so short that there is constant turnover, institutional memory is too short and the same solutions are explored multiple times. There is also the danger that long term decision and policy making will lack any sort of consistency.
In a piece on the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Rick Moyer acknowledges that too short a term allows the board to avoid confrontation by allowing the calendar to remove difficult board members.
The other problem with term limits is that they can be used as a crutch or an excuse not to address performance issues. Why have a difficult conversation about a board leader’s poor performance when he or she will be rotating out of the role in a year or two anyway?
He notes that, though an imperfect solution, you may need to depend on term limits on officers to remove poor leadership since few on the board would have the standing to remove a board chair.
The other personnel issue with short term limits is that you will constantly be training new board members in good governance practices. The temptation might be to only provide cursory training since the person won’t be around long.
In the other direction, having virtually no new turn over means the board is not keeping abreast of evolving thought on good governance practices without the need to convey them to new members.
So Just How Long is a Good Term of Service?
According to website of attorneys Bea & VandenBerk, a total of six years of service, broken down into either 2 three-year terms or 3 two-year terms seems to be the most common approach. They suggest 3 three-year terms, with the first term being the best period for a new board member to become fully acclimated to the organization.
If term limits are desired, this office prefers that nonprofits provide a longer service to the organization by adopting a limit of three (3) 3-year terms. This allows for a full nine (9) years of board involvement before a director retires, during which the organization can reap the benefits of an individual’s mature judgment and deep knowledge of the organization’s programs, history, and ethos. However, we realize that this is not possible in many cases, and that a shorter term of service is often preferred.
It should be noted that most boards have staggered expiration of terms so that only 1/3 of the board is turning over at any one time.
Even with this being the case, many board members serve for a much longer time, returning to the board after a mandatory separation period dictated in the by-laws.
Bea & VandenBerk suggest some other options as well:
- Eliminate term limits but provide strong periodic evaluation systems.
- Allow a time-limited board member to be re-elected to the board after a one-year hiatus.
- Appoint the board member to a key committee such as the finance or nominating committee as a non-director.
- If there is a supporting foundation, allow the retired board member to serve on its board.
- Create an “Advisory Board” or committee for continued informal involvement with the board or chief executive.
- Find other ways to include the individual in volunteer activities.
Any of these techniques must be paired with a rigorous evaluation system to ensure that the board remains viable as a governing body. Nothing does more to kill enthusiasm of energetic volunteers than finding that board meetings are peopled with “dead wood” – that is, people who are fatigued by too-long involvement, and thus are disengaged from board work.