One of the major issues facing nonprofit boards is the burnout of key members and leaders, which is often a byproduct of a lack of board development and leadership succession. While most boards understand the inherent risks that overdependence on key members can create, they nevertheless continue to struggle with doing anything about it and, as a result, increase the organization’s risk as they wear-out their leadership.
An effective way to create the organizational discipline necessary for leadership succession is to institute term limits for officers, as well as for all board members. At Starboard, we are strong advocates for term limits, believing that term limits not only keeps board development and leadership succession conversations alive as an ongoing element of organizational life, but they also help to put in place a timeframe and prompt the process of recruiting new members and leaders.
Typical term limit structures include 2 three-year terms, 2 four-year terms, or even 3 three-year terms, but if a board is truly interested in keeping its development and leadership succession front of mind, we would recommend one of the first two options. Officer terms should be for a maximum of two years, as officers are still learning in their first year, and two years creates the appropriate fluidity to keep the leadership succession process alive.
While term limits can serve as an excellent framework to develop a healthy culture of board development and leadership succession, it is critical that there is active and ongoing engagement around these issues. The governance committee should be tasked with the role of board and leadership development, which not only includes recruitment of new members around identified needs, but also includes mentoring new members, developing leadership skills through committee work, and identification of a leadership succession framework at the officer level. This will give the board a clear understanding of the leadership pipeline and also sets an expectation of stepping up into leadership roles as board tenure grows. If done right, it also creates great mentoring opportunities; leaders of committees can mentor new members to take on their roles while they in turn are being mentored by experienced officers as they move into officer roles.
The Governance Committee should also take responsibility for assessing where leadership development opportunities may exist for newer members as well as with those board members who may be eligible for another term. You’ll find that a perfect time to assess how engaged board members have been, and their readiness to take-on leadership roles, is at the time when you and they are considering whether another term is in the cards. Before offering a board member an additional term, take the opportunity to talk about the need to have seasoned board members step into leadership positions.
One of the primary reasons the issues of board development and leadership succession aren’t addressed well by nonprofits is that staff and board leadership don’t put enough time and effort into developing the appropriate structures, processes and accountability to make them more functional and productive. The resulting default position ends up being excess reliance on a small number of key leaders, who understandably get tired and challenged by having to carry such a heavy burden for the organization.
So, do your mission and your long-time board leaders a favor by creating an active Governance Committee with a clear charge of board development and leadership succession. Consider instituting term limits to create the framework for that development, and embrace a culture of mentoring to develop each board member’s leadership skills. Rather than having to beg long-time leaders to “just hang in there for one more year,” you’ll be able to celebrate their contributions to your organization appropriately, create opportunities for others to step-up, and embed an expectation that board members will take-on leadership roles as their tenure evolves.
Scott Schnapp authored this blog post in his role as a Consulting Partner here at Starboard. A full bio for Scott is available on the Starboard Leadership Consulting website, and you can contact him directly at [email protected].