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Board Term Limits

June 12, 2010

There are several determining factors for deciding whether to impose term limits for the board of directors of a nonprofit organization. In our experience, setting term limits plays a crucial role in the long-term success of the organization.

Whether to impose term limits for board members can best be addressed by examining the expectations and qualities of board members. When choosing board members, desirable qualities in a candidate might include energy, passion and tenacity. These same qualities also come into play when considering term limits. 

Regardless of one’s energy, passion and tenacity; a primary factor influencing those who serve in nonprofit organizations over time is burnout. Establishing term limits ensures that a person won’t feel “stuck” in a never-ending position. Term limits also help to reduce feelings of guilt in leaving a position and give people a time frame for which they can prepare to give their best work.

A new organization needs to remain stable in order to gain a strong foothold and become established, so limits shouldn’t be too short.  On the other hand, as an organization matures, it will need a rotation of new board members who will introduce new energy and ideas.  Limits should be set to encourage a healthy mix of experience and fresh perspectives.

As senior members rotate out of board positions, they may choose to continue serving the organization as an advocate or fundraiser within the community, and may choose to make use of his or her board experience in an advisory or mentor capacity. We’ve seen this executed with great results by a number of more established organizations. Yet another approach is to allow board members to return to the board after a hiatus.

Perhaps it’s obvious, but it bears noting that term limits also prevent negative, unethical or stale ideas and methods from lingering in the boardroom. By setting limits and creating a board alumni program or advisory panel, leadership can leverage the strengths and value of former board excellence while weeding out more counterproductive members.

Ultimately, the organization has complete control over how they write their policy into their bylaws, and what elements they choose to include. Should they set limits all? Should limits apply equally to all members? Should former members be allowed to rejoin the board? These are just a few of the options to consider. Regardless of where the board settles on this often controversial topic, the subject should at the very least be discussed in order to ensure the best possible oversight and leadership of the organization.

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