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Board members: It’s not a life sentence

By Andy Robinson
December 13, 2019

Door with Exit sign above it and to the right of it a graphic showing a figure running toward a door
Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

Reprinted from Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money

Once upon a time, I served with a skilled, committed, hard-working board president: a great strategic thinker and also attentive to detail. This is a rare combination. If I could clone this person for other boards, I would absolutely do it.

Our president, however, was always dancing on the edge of burnout. Lacking an obvious successor, they felt chained to the position. All that commitment and hard work came with dark edges: stress, crankiness, and a tendency toward martyrdom. None of these behaviors helped to engage other board members or lift up the next group of leaders.

This is one instance where term limits—requiring people to leave the board after a certain number of years—would have forced the transition and surfaced a new president, ready or not. It might have been a healthy outcome for everyone involved.

As organizations change, boards need to change, too

Board roles and responsibilities evolve as nonprofits grow and change. The founding leaders may not be the right team to manage a growing staff, oversee expanding programs, or respond to significant changes in the marketplace.

Even in well-established organizations, assumptions about community needs and how to best meet them must be regularly reviewed and challenged.

If you consider the need for succession planning—proactively planning for and empowering the next generation of leadership—then bringing in new board blood is essential to long-term sustainability and success.

What are they thinking?

With this in mind, it’s always surprising to learn about board members serving 10, 20, or even 30 years with the same organization. What can they possibly be thinking? Here’s my best guess:

  • “I’m irreplaceable. No one else can do what I do.”
  • “I embody organizational history. If I leave, nobody will remember the past, and we will be doomed to repeat it.”
  • “I’m a martyr. No one else will carry this burden.”
  • “It’s a big part of my social life, and I enjoy regular opportunities to see my friends.”
  • “I’m going to stick around until the organization achieves X. Then I can leave knowing things will be fine without me.” (Note: X is often a moving target.)

These internal monologues ignore the ways in which we all get stuck in our own particular ruts: the same actions (or inaction), the same assumptions and biases, the same interpersonal behaviors.

Nonprofit organizations are growing, changing organisms, and they need leaders with the capacity to envision the future in different ways. If your board doesn’t change on a regular basis, organizational vision remains the same—and that can be deadly.

The value of term limits

The concept of term limits has become popular with nonprofits. Under the typical model, trustees are limited to a number of consecutive years on the board.

The most common configurations are three two-year terms, or two three-year terms, for a total of six years in a row. At that point, board members “term out” or cycle off the board, freeing up space for new trustees, new energy, and new ideas.

Terming out doesn’t always mean going away

If they wish to remain active, departing trustees can continue to serve on committees, assuming you include non-board committee members.

Or they can take on specific tasks as assigned by the trustees; for example, lead the capital campaign, organize a speaker’s bureau, conduct focus groups with clients, or, when called upon, serve as informal advisors to the board.

Perhaps you designate a long-term board member as “organizational historian” to consult as needed. A historical perspective can be really useful, but it doesn’t require a seat on the board.

A termed-out trustee can even rejoin the board after taking a year or two off, although this practice defeats the purpose of limiting board service.

It’s your call

Term limits can’t be mandated by a blog post, a book, or an outside expert. The policy needs to be discussed and debated. On this issue, as with many others, reasonable people can credibly disagree.

If you decide to institute term limits, you’ll need to amend your bylaws, which may require a vote of the membership.

This post is adapted from Andy’s latest book, What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid.

Tags: Boards