The debate on term limits has been waging for decades, if not centuries. So, there is no “settled” answer to this question. But my own answer is very firm: term limits—both for board members and officers—are a must. My reasons underlying this answer are simple, and take into account the arguments put forth by those on the side of no term limits…
1. If you are doing all the work you are supposed to be doing as a hard working board member—in other words, if you are truly assuming the full array of your board member responsibilities—you get tired. And after six or nine years of service, and two or three consecutive terms of two or three year terms seems to be the norm, you should be a very tired board member in need of a vacation. But unless we give board members permission to take that vacation, the hard working ones won’t, despite recognizing their own fatigue. (Guilt is a powerful emotion.)
2. Boards need new blood, energy and, perhaps most important, perspective and ideas if they want their organizations to flourish. Which means boards need new board members.
3. What an organization needs on its board in terms of expertise, connections, demographics, and intrinsic qualities is not static. The needs of an infant organization are very different from those of a mature one; what it needs during a growth spurt may not be what it needs during a period of stability. This requires that board members rotate off and new ones come on.
4. Just because a board member rotates off the board after serving one to the maximum number of terms allowed does not mean that you are throwing that board member away, saying good-bye and good riddance. Quite the contrary. Smart organizations have ways to keep those good, hard working board members engaged once their term limit is up. Folks can continue to serve on committees; they can be put on some kind of auxiliary board, such as a Friends Board or Advisory Board; they can become special ambassadors or mentors to future board leaders, and so much more. If people are committed enough to your mission to have served as a board member, they are committed enough to execute other roles that will support that mission. By changing roles within the organization we provide former board members the opportunity to gain a different perspective on the organization so that should they return to board service down the road they have a broader understanding.
5. Institutional memory should never reside in the memory of one or even several board members. Possessing the institutional memory is the worst reason for keeping someone on a board, as frequently that is all that person is able or willing to bring to the table. Institutional history should be documented and in a format that is easily shared with others. Do not mistake important institutional memories—times lines, milestones in an organization’s history, key leaders, etc—with the minutia that generally gets titled institutional memory. The kind of Institutional memory that too often resides in peoples’ minds is more often than not used to hold organization’s back, not propel them forward.
6. Boards must avoid the pitfall of dismissing ideas with “We’ve tried that before.” Trying something 10 years before is not the same as trying it today, when neither the organization nor the environment in which it is operating should be the same. Boards populated by individuals who have that institutional memory to remember what was tried—or dismissed without trying—10, 15, 40 years ago—hold organizations back.
7. All of what has been said above applies equally to board officers. They get tired, leaders need to be innovative, aware, calculated risk takers, etc. I’ve seen too many board presidents who have been in office for too long kill the enthusiasm of boards, hold organizations back, squash new ideas. Being a good board leader, particularly the president, requires hard work. Burn out can come quickly to a board president with vision, who wishes to accomplish things, who wants to move the board and the organization forward. What an organization needs in its key leadership positions varies depending upon its strategic priorities. A very different kind of board president is needed as an organization launches into a capital or endowment campaign than when the organization is recuperating from such a campaign.
Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University