THE MYTH OF BOARD TERMS
Updated: Feb 11
Do you really want your best board members to move on?
There are two naturally conflicting principles when considering board member term limitations.
These can be described as Keeping your Best Board Members, versus Bringing in New Blood. Striking the right balance can be critical to sustainable success.
So let’s consider your options when faced with this challenge,
or rather, this opportunity.
First, let’s imagine a successful sports team with a few superstar players. The team has new unproven players that might agree to join the team. Now let’s imagine this team politely letting its star players go, because "the plan" said so.
Would that make sense to you?
If not, then why do some non-profit boards stick to term limits as listed
in the bylaws as if they were the 11th Commandment?!
Why do we have board terms?
Board terms exist to assure that the board remains fresh, that the organization can attract new leaders, and that it doesn’t stagnate with tired or ineffective board members who don’t want to let go. Without board terms, the board can suffer from:
Individual power grabbing
Inability to move ineffective board members onwards
Difficulty in improving the board
Reduction in fundraising as you tire out your current team
To avoid these pitfalls, there certainly should be a process to thoughtfully analyze each board members’ service on the board, including written expectations and limitations of board service. That makes sense.
But it doesn’t have to be dogmatic.
Board development is not like “paint by numbers”. You don’t just put rules down and then follow them without thinking - until you fall off the edge of a cliff.
But it happens.
I recall a board member serving on an organization that had more than a third of its board members term out, all in the same year. Some were superstars, including herself. She explained it was partially due to a confluence of timing, coupled with a board belief that the bylaws were sacrosanct. A decade later, this organization is still struggling to regain what it lost in credibility, relationships and fundraising prowess.
It did not have to be that way.
True Leaders Must be Cherished
Every board has its stars. Great leaders give of their time and treasure, and provide momentum and creativity. These are the people who attract and mentor others, and who have the experience to drive stability and growth.
Last month, I heard from another board member whose term limitations were about to set in, and the board was reconciled to his moving on. He explained - “I’ve had two other boards ask me if I’d be willing to serve next year – but I’m not really sure I want to.” So I asked, "Would you consider staying on”?
He thought for about 10 seconds, then said yes, if he was asked.
So let’s start with a simple premise. The board sets the rules, and the board can change the rules. The answer is to consider potential bylaws variations that can retain talent while still protecting against stagnation.
The Nomination/Governance Committee should be composed of leaders who have the clout and experience to do the right thing, even when pressured (as in a board member who doesn’t want to go). They can consider changes to the bylaws and create sensible solutions to board terms, staggering of terms, number of board members, or any other issue which can be of value to board success.
Here are a few of the ideas that I have helped boards successfully implement . . . .
Change term limitations from two 3-year terms to three 3-year terms, but only for exemplary members. Provide some written guidance as to what qualifies as “exemplary”, and have your nominating committee stick to it.
Retain star members through a 2/3’s majority of the Executive Committee or Board, upon the recommendation of the nominating committee. This identifies and retains your superstars, without opening an automatic path to those who should roll off.
Create special positions through your bylaws and ask a board member to remain on the board in that position, in order to develop new growth efforts. Examples include: Campaign Chair, Chair Emeritus, Recognition Group Chair, a new Membership Group Chair, or even a new Auxiliary Group Chair. In other words, find something that needs to get done, then ask the superstar to launch it!
Expand your board size to retain stars while still recruiting great new members. Of course, there are limits, but it’s usually far beyond what people worry about, especially when the “problem” is too many great members!
Create an Advisory Board? PLEASE don’t. Parking great leaders on a powerless group without a true mission may keep someone hanging around, but there are far better solutions. Use your Advisory Board for advisors only.
What other solutions can we create? The possibilities are endless once you consider your bylaws a living document that guides, rather than a template that gets in the way.
Stars attract stars. Create an equilibrium between retaining great leaders while still recruiting new champions.
I recall one special board leader. Every time her term would come up, the board would discover an important challenge for her to lead. And fifteen years later, she was still at it, having founded and led endless successful programs, which she passed on to others!
Change the bylaws. Create exceptions. Don’t fixate on rules. Encourage your organization to retain talented guidance through the exceptional leaders who have grown great with your organization.
When they are ready to go, they will go. In the meantime, enjoy their star power!