Thoughts from the Coach Boat

Term Limits?

There is some debate as to whether it is a "best practice" for organizations to limit the number of consecutive terms that board members can serve. Irrespective of whether there can be a "one size fits all" answer, it is important for every organization to consider whether limiting the number of consecutive board terms would or would not advance their strategic values. Ignoring the question is in effect a decision to have no limit. This might be a good decision, but it may not be.

Term limits are sometimes used to avoid the difficult conversations anticipated when long standing members should not be offered additional terms. The question is not be whether a term limit policy might be a good way to remove "dead wood," but rather whether term limits would be of strategic value for the organization.

Asking the Question
What is the need?
The first step is to determine whether the current board contains the skills, qualities and networks needed as the organization and the environment evolves.

For example, a long standing social service provider determined that it was important to diversify its board to better reflect the populations it was serving. Term limits were adopted to assure that there would always be open places on the board that could be filled with candidates that fulfilled its diversity goals.

Another case involved a membership organization in a field that was rapidly evolving. It adopted term limits to assure that it would continually be recruiting board members representing the concerns of its evolving field and who might provide access to important new networks.

What are the potential benefits and losses?
Limiting the terms that a member can serve is a commitment to continual board recruitment. There are pros and cons to such a commitment. The Governance Committee should facilitate a discussion to provide an opportunity for board members to express their views and concerns.

Issues commonly expressed

Potential value
• Bring in new ideas and skills
• Increase the opportunity of reaching diverse communities
• Expand the potentially supportive networks
• Should increase fundraising capacity
• Provide for continual change as the environment changes
• Develop a culture of acceptance of change
• Avoid hard conversations about stepping down

Potential loss
• Continuity and historical knowledge
• Loss of skills and access
• Loss of strongly contributing members
• Time needed to orient and engage new members
• The change in board culture and team cohesion that will result from bringing in new cohorts
• Possible negative impact on revenue

Testing the waters
These conversations could take place at two or three board meetings. It would be helpful to have a non-binding straw poll to test the sentiment of the board on adopting term limits (strongly opposed, somewhat opposed, neutral, somewhat in favor, strongly in favor).

1. If the result of the straw poll is generally favorable, you will still need to determine the rule that would best fit your organization (two consecutive terms or three) and a mechanism to assure that members who have served their terms can continue to engage with the organization through committee service and/or membership in an honorary council.

2. If the result is not favorable, you will need to determine how you will bring on the needed skills and representation, e.g., increasing the size of the board, individual review of each board member with respect to re-nomination, voluntary term limits, etc.

3. This is also an opportunity to consider terms for officers, especially for the Chair. Many boards limit the term of the Chair to two or three years with early identification of a potential successor, often the Vice Chair, with a structured process of shadowing and preparation.

While this will not necessarily be an easy discussion, it can set your board on a path towards building the composition that best serves the organization.
Remember, no decision is a decision!