Q:  Our board is discussing a major rewrite of its bylaws. A major sticking point is the issue of term limits. There are two camps – both vocal. As you can gather, one side wants to adopt term limits, and the other side doesn’t. The “yes term limits” group has shared that as many as 70% of nonprofits have adopted term limits. The “no term limits” group insists that term limits only work with organizations with strong social appeal and/or large boards with a waiting list. The “no term limits” group argues that we have a small board that no one wants to join, and we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face, so to speak, if we require turnover. Do you have any thoughts that you could share?

 

A: Thediscussion your board is having is one that most boards have at one point or another. There are valid arguments on both sides of this issue.

For “no term limits,” the most convincing is why would you want to force someone off the board who is still committed to your organization and doing an incredible job for you, just because that person has served some arbitrary number of years. Of course, just because someone’s term has expired doesn’t mean that the person must leave the scene altogether. There are many options for keeping interested individuals involved, such as putting them on key committees.

I find the scale weighted more strongly on the “yes term limits” side, though it doesn’t make it right for your organization. The arguments in favor of “yes term limits” include, ensuring regular turnover, which presumably allows the organization to bring in the right skills at the right time, as the needs and the environment change. Perhaps more important, such turnover ensures a future for the organization. Without turnover, organizations become stagnant. There are no fresh ideas. And, when the current board grows tired of its responsibilities, or when board directors become infirm or even pass away, the organization often fades away due to the lack of incoming leadership. Few people are going to join an organization that historically has been closed to new directors. Even if someone was willing to say yes under such circumstances, the chances of him or her staying is slight. That is because typically his or her suggestions will be rejected – “That’s not how we do things here.” “We’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work.” “You’re new. You don’t understand our organization.” Of course, there is also the fact that it is easier to remove deadwood from the board when there are term limits, but I find that a weak argument. Boards with high standards are exponentially more effective than those that don’t, and directors have a right and responsibility to hold their colleagues to such high standards. That means speaking with anyone who is shirking his or her responsibility on a timely basis and, if nothing changes, unapologetically asking that person to step down, rather than taking the coward’s approach and waiting for a term to expire.

It is for these reasons that, according to BoardSource’s 2015 Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (the latest available data), 71% of organizations have term limits for board directors. The number is consistent, within a few percentage points, regardless of budget size, type of organization (charity, association, foundation or other), or service area (local, regional, multi-state, national or international). This reality makes specious the argument of your “no term limits” group – that term limits only work for large boards with waiting lists.

Frankly, I believe your “no term limits” supporters are comfortable – even if subconsciously – having an excuse that allows them to avoid actively recruiting. I guarantee there are many, many, many people that would love the opportunity to join your board. They may not be the usual suspects. They may not all be able to give large gifts, though I bet there are even some of those out there. The key is recognizing that you must move beyond your own circles of influence. It may be easier to go back to the same well all the time than to create an intentional year-round recruitment plan and work it; but since you asked my opinion, I believe your organization will be stronger for adopting term limits, than not.