Term limits for nonprofit boards can be a touchy subject, most especially if your board was created without them. Although board members are technically elected, either by the membership or by their fellow board members, if there aren’t term limits for a board member, one person can stay on for years longer than they should. It takes a strong board to be willing to address the issue, and vote them off if necessary.
In general, experts recommend that a board member can serve two terms, each three years long. Six years is plenty of time to learn the ropes and make a significant contribution to the organization, without getting worn out.
Benefits to Term Limits
New board members mean new ambassadors and new connections for the organization. Each time someone joined our board, we met some fantastic people in our community who we didn’t know before. Every board member had friends who could become donors or volunteers once they knew about the organization.
Terms also give each board member a chance to assess for themselves if they are ready to leave the board. As a board member, I found that when I came up to the end of my term, I was ready to hand off the leadership to someone new. When I realized that I wasn’t looking forward to another three years, I knew it was time. Everyone gets tired. No matter how passionate you are about a cause, there are also frustrations to serving on a board, and having a break is helpful. Any board member can return after a year break from the board, during which time they can still volunteer and serve on committees. They’ll still be making a positive difference in the organization during this time.
Bringing on new board members allows the board to look for more diverse candidates, as well as candidates who represent the population served by the organization. Term limits alone won’t result in diversity, of course, but combined with a recruiting committee focused on the topic, they make it much easier to bring in candidates with a variety of backgrounds. Read more on recruitment here.
On a board with many long-serving board members, bringing in an occasional new board member can be hard. They’ll always feel like the “new” person, and be less willing to challenge long-held beliefs. On the other hand, if board members rotate out regularly, new board members will feel comfortable stepping in much quicker.
What do you lose by having term limits?
You can lose organizational knowledge with experienced board members stepping down. This is a real concern, as six years can be a short period of time in a nonprofit’s history. You can retain this information by creating an advisory board of past members, or keeping them on key committees.
Some organizations feel that they will spend all their time recruiting new members when there is constant turn over. It may take a little more time, but the results will be worth it when new energy and ideas join the board. Read more on recruitment here. On the other hand, instead of putting energy into recruitment, the board can put its energy into developing and encouraging the board members it already has. For some boards, this may result in better outcomes.
A board with little tenure runs the risk of being less critical of the executive director. A board member who has concerns about an ED, but who is on their way out due to term limits, may not express those concerns as strongly, in comparison to someone who has committed to the organization for the longer term. In addition, a new board member with little board experience could be bullied by an experienced ED into not delving into issues as deeply as they should.
How can you implement term limits?
If your organization doesn’t have term limits in its bylaws, it is a simple matter to add the language, but it may not be easy to get the board to agree to the change. Having an outside consultant come in and present the change may make it easier for the group to accept. In addition, let board members choose the length of their “first” term. Once the bylaws are amended, 1/3 of the board members should have a 1 year term, 1/3 will be 2 years, and 1/3 will be three years. Each person can choose the length of term they want, and it may work out evenly. If not, they can always draw lots. Finally, under a standard set of two three year terms, they then have the option of staying on for another term, extending their service to 4 to 6 years down the road, long enough that most people will feel comfortable with rotating off the board at that point.
Another option is to start a board member with a 1 year term first, so that new members and the organization have a chance to try it out. After that they serve a 3 year term, and then their final term is 2 years, when people are getting ready to move on. This article has more information.
What if you don’t have terms or term limits?
If the board won’t yet consider implementing limits on their terms, consider implementing a board self-evaluation process. There should be two parts to this evaluation. First, the board should evaluate itself as a whole. Each board member can assess how the board is doing and in what areas the board could improve, and then the full board should discuss the topic at the next board meeting. This will give the board a framework to focus on for the coming year.
Second, each board member should assess themselves and how they are doing in multiple areas. Are they able to put in the time needed for the board? Are they connecting the organization to new supporters? Are they contributing meaningfully to the board and committee discussions? Many board self-assessments are available here. As a final step in the self-assessment process, the board chair should meet individually with each board member to discuss their individual assessment. This would be a perfect time to have a difficult conversation with someone who is no longer a good fit for the board.
Boards shouldn’t rely on term limits to remove a board member that isn’t a good fit. If someone is clearly not able to fulfill their duties as a board member after the first two years of their three year term, someone needs to have a conversation with them about their ongoing commitment, not just gut it out for the last year. As long as this is part of the organizational culture, it won’t come as a surprise when a member is asked to leave. Often they know they haven’t been as good a board member as they would like to be, and they are relieved to be asked to step down.