Why you should want term limits

I used to waffle a bit on this, but no more. Term limits are a very, very good thing for board members and for officers. While there are some wonderful nonprofits led by some wonderful board members and officers who have been there for years and years, I’ve become convinced that the benefits of turnover far outweigh whatever benefit comes from continuity, or “that appreciation for our history” that so many boards use as an excuse for not having term limits.

So, as board chair, do you really want to make this a lifetime commitment? Is that what you signed-on to do? Do you think in five, ten, or twenty years from now that you’ll be bringing the level of passion and commitment to the job that you are giving to it now? Probably not. Yet I’ve seen several boards where board chairs and board members serve indefinitely, including one where a board member described their board terms as: “The only way off this board is to find your replacement or to die.” Does it surprise you to learn that this is the only nonprofit I’ve ever worked with that actually went out of business?

I’ve listened to the arguments for continuity and for retaining the very best board member, and I appreciate them. As a former chief executive of a nonprofit, I had board members I did not want to lose, and as a board member I’ve struggled with the reality of losing some truly extraordinary colleagues and leaders. It is hard to say “goodbye” to good people, and it is especially difficult to see a really superb board leader replaced. Still, there is no question but that boards and organizations are healthier when there is an orderly succession of board members and board leaders.

Here’s what I see as some of the benefits:

Share the opportunity – One of your goals should be to continually involve more and more people in the organization, get them to know what you do, turn them into advocates, and increase your base of support. Turnover on the board helps you accomplish this.

Build leadership – I think it should be part of the mission of every organization to help people develop their leadership skills. Board service done right is a tremendous way to develop leaders who can continue to have impact throughout the community.

Benefit from fresh perspectives– We should be looking for a continual flow of new ideas, different perspectives, and innovative solutions to the problems we face. The approaches we’ve taken in the past aren’t always the same ones that we’ll need in the future.

Add to your skill-set – As you look to the future, or think about the challenges your organization is facing today, it is likely that you’ll need a different skill-set than what you have around the board table today.

Increase your opportunities – New people mean new contacts, new relationships, new connections and new opportunities.

And they just might even be better than what you’ve got now – It may be hard to imagine, but even the best board members are not irreplaceable, and you might be very surprised by just how wonderful that new board member or leader will be.

Yes, it is hard work replacing board members, and there is always the fear that you won’t find replacements—good replacements, but don’t let fear of the unknown or fear of what you’ll find stop you from doing what is right.

If the board doesn’t have term limits for its board members or officers, you are in the perfect place to start that conversation. The board chair who wants to ensure that he is not “king for life” will earn tremendous respect from the rest of the board, even if they fear the alternative. By putting term limits in place, you force the board into developing a recruitment effort instead of sitting back and hoping no one will leave. You might also help them to think about how they can keep former board members engaged in some other kind of volunteer role.

Think of it this way, which is the better board strategy: “Let’s hope no one quits,” or “Let’s go get some really good new board members”? Promote healthy turnover on the board. Support term limits. The rest of the board needs you to take the lead here.

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected].