Term Limits for Board Members

Dear Kim:

What is your opinion about term limits for board members?  We have finally gotten a great board together and we all like each other, and now one of our key people is to term out at the end of the year.  We are already sad about this and thinking of changing our by-laws to accommodate him staying on.  But we also know that probably isn’t a good idea.  We will abide by your decision!

~Over to You

Dear Over:

While I love power, I must decline your offer to abide by my decision, which I cannot make on your behalf!  Sweet of you to offer, though.

But I can answer your question.  I believe in term limits, but they have to be part of a bigger organizational structure.  By themselves, term limits do what they do in politics:  make good and bad legislators leave office, people who voters have elected.  They do not address the issues of why voters return incompetent people to office term after term, or why so few people vote at all.   They force good people to leave before they have finished their work.

In too many nonprofits, there are only two ways to be involved:  be on staff or be on the board.   Term limits are not a good idea in those kinds of structures, but be very clear that the structure is the problem!  Marc Smiley, an excellent board development consultant (http://www.solidgroundconsulting.com/) has a wonderful drawing on his home page of the many circles of possible involvement for people.  The idea is to have ever-expanding circles of responsibility, creativity and authority into which you can invite all kinds of people to serve, and to which you can move people when they are term limited off the board, leave the staff, or simply want to focus on one thing.  The board is at the center, but is fed and informed by committees, advisory groups, volunteers etc. Term limits make sense in that context.  Good people can be rewarded for fine work by moving off of the board onto a focused committee, hopefully focused on something that person is really passionate about or good at (or both). 

I also believe the “lines” between board, committees and volunteers should be permeable.   For example, fundraising committee members can attend board meetings where the subject is going to be the major donor campaign or creating a fundraising plan.  I have been with many well-functioning boards where the board members themselves sometimes forgot who was on the board and who was on a committee. 

Term limits are considered “best practice” but they are not an end in themselves.

Good luck in YOUR discussion! I hope you use your admiration and respect for this person you referenced to add layers to your structures to continue to make use of his gifts, but to leave room for a new person on the board.