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Nonprofit Board Member Term Limits: Pros & Cons

Term Limits: Pros & Cons

Is your board grappling with whether to implement board term limits? Many boards struggle over this decision. There are certainly pros and cons,. Regardless of which direction you are considering, nonprofits should clearly define the length of a single term in office. Great board members can always be reelected for another term of service. But how many terms are enough? With term limits, nonprofits have the option of weeding out unproductive or uncooperative board members. Defining this length of time up front can prevent lots of hurt feelings down the road. It can also keep people focused to provide their best service during a finite period of time.

nonprofit board member term limits pros and cons

Pros of Term Limits

When boards are first founded, you are likely just trying to get the organization off the ground. However, a few years down the road, success brings expansion into new areas and opportunities that your current board is simply not equipped for. In these cases, board term limits can help by creating definite time periods in which new skill sets can be brought on. Every board needs new talents and perspectives from time to time. Term limits are an effective way to achieve that. Having term limits and thus more board member turnover can also improve your fundraising efforts because your organization has further reach.

A Convenient Way Out

Eventually, all batteries need recharging, right? Board members may become complacent over time, so term limits are a great way to ensure that you always have high energy people. Some boards don’t have term limits, but instead impose periodic board evaluations to assess performance. Others ask board members to take a brief hiatus of six months or a year before applying for board re-election. The board member may recharge or may realize that fatigue or apathy have set in. Then, you can mutually decide for that person not to return to the board. However, this doesn’t mean you necessarily have to lose that person’s expertise. In fact, you shouldn’t lose them. Former board members are one of the best ambassadors of your organization. Figure out smart ways to keep them involved. Retiring board members can be appointed to other less demanding positions within the organization, or can remain active as volunteers. Bring former board members in for special fundraisers.

RELATED: What Are the REAL Responsibilities of a School Board?

Term limits afford you the opportunity to bring in younger board members. Lots of boards talk about it, but few put the steps into place to make it a reality. If you bring someone in at age 35, by age 40 they have fulfilled their board service and then are ambassadors for your organization for decades to come. Give it some serious thought, and perhaps even set aside one or two board positions specifically for the under-40 group.

RELATED: Board Member Orientation: What THEY Need to Know

Cons of Board Member Term Limits

Having term limits also has drawbacks, the most significant being lack of continuity, particularly when terms are only two years log. Continuity is important to decisions about mission and direction, which require an in-depth knowledge of the organization. Certain boards decide that it is too disruptive to change leadership every two years. One nonprofit told us they felt that they were grooming excellent board members for every nonprofit in town. They would train a board member for a few years, then lose them after their term limits were met. This nonprofit decided to eliminate term limits, and instead double down on board member check-ins and evaluations.

Many boards make the mistake of using term limits to avoid discussions about poor board member performance. Instead of having a difficult conversation, boards just ride out the storm, waiting for the term to end. This can be detrimental to the board’s morale and can prevent you from “cleaning house” and getting a more effective board member earlier. Ideally, every board should have strong governance processes in place for performance assessment. If so, term limits may not be necessary.

An Important Decision

If you haven’t considered term limits, give it some thought. In the end, whether you decide to implement limits or not, you will have done the due diligence and likely have thought of some creative ways to engage your current and former board members. With some consideration, you will end up with even more people invested in your organization.


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