Why Board Term Limits Matter

term limits

I have had this conversation so often I can write both parts of the script.

Joan: “So when does your chair’s term end?”
E.D.: “Oh, well we don’t really have term limits.”
Joan: “You don’t really have them?”
E.D.: “I think they are in the by laws or maybe they aren’t – I don’t really know – it doesn’t matter I suppose. Board members would revolt if we tried to enforce them”
Joan: “Revolt?” Why?
E.D.: “Well Cindy has been willing to be board chair for the last six years and frankly, no one else wants the job. And as I think about, no one else would be very good.”

So what exactly is the BIG FAT PROBLEM?

Ignoring the bylaws? Nope. Although that is a problem.

No mention that Cindy is a great chair? Nope not the headline.

No one else wants the job? Getting warmer, but nope.

Give up?

OK, let’s talk about the big fat problem and why term limits really really matter:

NO ONE ELSE WOULD BE A GOOD BOARD CHAIR

Let’s go back to our example. Cindy has been the board chair for six years. No one wants the job and no one else would be very good at it.

The big fat problem rests in these words, “NO ONE WOULD BE VERY GOOD AT IT”.

This board has NO leadership pipeline. I can guarantee you that either they have no committees at all, they have them in name only, or they are very weak.

Why? Because strong committees have strong leaders!

A board without a leadership pipeline; that doesn’t recruit for candidates with leadership potential? That board is a weak board.

WHY TERM LIMITS MATTER – THE SHORT ANSWER

Thriving nonprofits have strong boards.

Boards that do not recruit for and cultivate leaders are not strong. They are weak boards.

I’m sure you have heard me say that a thriving nonprofit is like a twin-engine jet with a board engine and a staff engine and a strong board chair and staff leader leading together in the cockpit as co-pilots.

No term limits? Then I know that one of your engines is weak. And I will be more than just a little reluctant to climb aboard.

INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY IS A TERRIBLE REASON TO AVOID TERM LIMITS

We all know the common arguments against term limits. The first one we just discussed – Cindy is great, she is willing to do it, and we don’t have anyone else who would or could step into the role.

But we all know that board members play this card they are sure will put this whole issue to rest. It’s the “Institutional Memory” card. They play it and we are all supposed to fold.

But we can’t fold.

Here are five good reasons why:

  1. Term limits force an organization to recruit for folks with leadership potential.
    These are individuals who will say yes to chairing a committee, serving as a Vice Chair.
    Board members are organizational leaders and we must recruit with leadership in mind. Here’s what I mean.I am working with an organization that just instituted term limits. They’ve had the same board chair for six years and no current board member was interested or willing to serve when the chair termed off. Their only option was to go out and recruit for a board chair – and they recruited someone with passion for the cause. But a prior relationship with the organization was not a prerequisite. To its credit, this organization recruited a terrific guy, but he had zero organizational knowledge and no previous “skin in the game” as a donor or volunteer. He will have to earn his stripes.
  2. Term limits promote new ideas and innovation.Groupthink is a hazard to any organization of any kind. And the same group talking about the same issues for a long period of time? Groupthink. Stagnation.
  3. Term limits allow an organization to spread its wings and engage many more people in the work.Think of each board member as having a sphere of influence. Recruit new board members who have different groups of colleagues and friends and you build a bigger army of folks who know about your organization and want to be a part of it.Just think of the board that founders build – what I call the FOF board – “friends of founders” – a very very small sphere of influence. Term limits force you to go ‘casting’ for other characters who will bring new people to your organization.
  4. Term limits offer boundaries to contend with low performing or problematic board members.I’ve heard this a few (hundred) times. “I wish we could move her off the board – she is such a problem – but we don’t know how to do it without having her go away angry.” Term limits offer your guardrails.
  5. Growing organizations and sector changes will demand different skills and expertise.Here’s an example – the AIDS epidemic has changed so drastically since the 1980s, both in terms of medical advances and in terms of the population most affected. The epidemic began in the gay community and organizations rallied the LGBT community to raise money and serve on boards. Today the most affected population is lower income African American women – the epidemic is radically different and will continue to change until it is eradicated once and for all. Since the 80s, HIV/AIDS organizations have needed to evolve in all kinds of ways, including the composition of their boards. Term limits would thwart the board’s ability to be of real value in a changing landscape.

HAVE THIS CONVERSATION IN YOUR ORGANIZATION

Pull together a few folks on your board and your E.D. and use this post to talk through how to raise the conversation. Consider objection questions and develop talking points. Get out in front of challenges like creating a plan staggering the term limits – it’s smart and it mitigates the institutional memory card (we can’t all leave at the same time). Decide what to do with the revered board chair you’ve had for 15 years (be creative, honor her but do not give her any authority that might undermine the role of your new chair).

YOU CAN DO THIS. YOU MUST.

It may not be the easiest policy to introduce into your organization but since when have nonprofit leaders shied away from the hard stuff?

So, tell me in the comments. Do you have term limits? Did you always? If you had to introduce them to an existing board, how did that go?