Nonprofit board term limits – pro and cons

Conventional wisdom holds that board member term limits are good practice. But is this necessarily so?

The Pros of Term Limits

At a February workshop on board transitions that I led for the Rhode Island Foundation, participants contributed many reasons that term limits make sense :

  • They provide a structure to get rid of nonperforming board members when courage is lacking.
  • They offer an infusion of “fresh blood.”
  • They enable a graceful exit for members who would like to leave.
  • They can strengthen recruitment as potential new members or officers know they aren’t committing to  a life sentence.
  • They create a sense of urgency in the nominating committee which might otherwise drag its feet on recruiting new members.
  • They enable ongoing reconfiguration of the ideal board composition, including opportunities to increase the diversity of board perspectives.
  • They grow the base of board alumni and groom a growing field of organizational advocates.
  • It’s easier to enter as a new member when you aren’t the only one.
  • They light a fire under existing members to complete what they’d like to accomplish during the length of their service.
  • A hiatus before bringing back a beloved and missed member re-invigorates their next term of service.

The cons of term limits

But there is a down side to losing long-term members.  In that training, we also discussed what is  lost when board members are required to leave due to relatively arbitrary time limits. Lost assets include:

  • The expertise of that particular board member
  • Hard to replace know-how or connections that some members may hold
  • The passion and interest of that particular board member
  • The coherence of the team, which needs to recalibrate after every shakeup
  • The commitment and work of a tested member, exchanged for a newer and thus riskier one
  • Money, as often a higher level of giving comes with board service, including family foundation or corporate giving tied to service on the board
  • Your investment in training a member in your governing process and the strategic issues of your organization
  • Wisdom
  • Knowledge, not only institutional memory, but also the intricate knowledge of community connections and the history of issues
  • Relationships held by that particular member, with donors, with  elected officials or government workers
  • Interest, which may fall off as terms are reaching their end

And as to that hiatus… on more than once occasion I’ve noticed that board members who return after a short hiatus aren’t always vetted as well as they should be. The loss felt by the organization is often so great that, in a rush to bring back a beloved former member, no one notices that the interests and enthusiasm of the returning member are different, and often less, than the past.

What’s your experience with board term limits?  What would you add to the pro and con list?

Related reading:

Lions and Longevity

6 responses to Nonprofit board term limits – pro and cons

  1. Lori L. Jacobwith

    Important topic, Gayle. I’m a fan of board terms. And I’m willing to make exceptions. But I feel like the energy can wane and a board can get into a malaise of habits – good and not so good, without the infusion of new energy. Having some real depth waiting in the wings can make the process of bringing on more board members exciting and fun to do. AND finding places for great board members to stay connected in other ways can be a great challenge and build some strength in committee structure and other volunteer efforts.

    I just spoke on this topic last week and I referenced this post about taking the time to really generate competent, effective board members in the recruitment process:

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I agree Lori. I’m wondering what really good structures or ways you’ve experienced to keep former board members as engaged as they were on the board?

  2. Sandy Rees

    I’m pro term limit. I think when Board members are around too long, momentum slows down, willingness to accept fresh ideas dwindles, and the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking takes over. You certainly don’t want all your experienced Board members to rotate off the Board at one time, and a solid orientation program for new members needs to be in place.

    Sandy Res

  3. Term Limits for Non-Profit Board Members | BoardEffect

    […] despite any financial instability. As part of the review, non-profit boards are weighing the pros and cons of term limits for board members. In evaluating this issue, non-profit boards are reviewing trends, […]

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