In Defense of Term Limits
It's hard enough to find good board members. So why rotate them?
With so many nonprofits having so many problems recruiting new board members, it's natural for them to look suspiciously at the concept of term limits. There are 1.2 million standing board openings - and another 1.8 million board seats become available every year. Given those figures, you can certainly understand a perplexed board chair asking, "I'm having a hard time finding new board members, and now you want me to get rid of my best ones?"
Well, in a sense, that board chair is right. Make no mistake about it: When you institute term limits, you lose good people. However, what you gain is worth the risk. There is nothing like new blood and new perspectives to invigorate a board. In a recent article in The Nonprofit Times, Business Volunteers Unlimited President Alice Korngold correctly notes that term limits are sometimes used as a quick fix for dysfunctional boards. She makes many excellent points in the article. Still, I can't tell you how many times, either while serving as a board member or working as a consultant to nonprofits, I have seen the dynamic of a board change when two or three new people join. How often does a stagnant board get bogged down in the same argument again and again? Then, a new board member injects a new point of view - and everything changes.
One board chair told me that, before they established term limits, the board already knew how everyone thought. It needed someone to challenge its opinions. A board member of a different organization noted that his new members brought fresh ideas from other boards. And a third board member said that regularly bringing in new people allows you to examine problems that are right under your nose. You just can't see them because you have become so imbedded in them.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, term limits can help solve your recruitment problems too. Finding new board members becomes easier when you have an active, energetic board. Nobody wants to serve on an old dead board that has been having the same discussion for 10 years.
It's hard to keep busy, high-performing people engaged on a board year after year. Most are interested in serving on a board for a period of time, but then they want to move on and do something else. In fact, a person who is willing to serve for 60 years may not be the kind of high-performing, high-quality board member that you are looking for.
And, while you may be losing valued board members, you could be gaining vital recruiters. From your organization's perspective, former board members form a wider and wider circle of people who know your group intimately and who can speak well of it in the community. Think about it. When you are recruiting new members, do you want 100 people out there looking for you - including 80 former board members? Or do you want the same 20 people who have been serving on your board forever? You can continue to engage your former members in the organization. And, hopefully, they will continue to contribute to your nonprofit.
It's a mistake to look at term limits as a panacea. Some nonprofits set their term limits for three, four, or five years. I don't think that's enough time to groom a good board member. Using term limits to weed out so-called "deadwood" board members is just an excuse to avoid dealing with underperformance. Age limits are problematic too. We all know 80-year-old board members who are high performers and 40-year-olds who don't show up for board meetings and don't contribute anything. But term limits can be a comfortable way of moving people who have been good performers off the board - and making way for the next generation of great board members.
Dr. Barbara E. Taylor is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant. She also is a lead researcher for the Governance Futures Project, jointly sponsored by BoardSource and the Hauser Center at Harvard University. E-mail Dr. Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alice Korngold, "Term Limits: Only Dysfunctional Boards Need Them" The Nonprofit Times ( October 15, 2002).
Sandra R. Hughes, Berit M. Lakey, and Marla J. Bobowick, The Board Building Cycle: Nine Steps to Finding, Recruiting, and Engaging Nonprofit Board Members (BoardSource 2000).