Monday, March 28, 2016

In defense of nonprofit board term limits

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

"Never can say goodbye. No, no, no, no..."

As a contemporary of the Jackson 5, the words of their song by that name contributed to the soundtrack of my youth and adolescence. Today, those words are less "soundtrack" than reminder of one of my nonprofit board mantras - one I woke up feeling compelled to reiterate here this morning:

Term limits are a very, very good thing. 

Term limits are a healthy thing. 

Nonprofit boards need term limits.

Some boards I know read that and think, "Wouldn't it be nice to have to reinforce term limits." They struggle to keep good members through the end of their appointed board terms. Parting ways at the end of a nice, long board tenure is something they rarely get to experience. Many others know exactly what I mean, because they've found that balance. They work their board members hard, they support them in their service, and everyone willingly moves on when an individual's time is up. Then there are others who look at the prospect of parting ways with longtime, valued members and simply can't - or won't - bear to bring their official relationship to an end.

Reasons for that third scenario can vary. The board may have trouble recruiting new members, so keeping those they have feels critical. If this person leaves, they ask, who will we get to replace him/her? A more likely scenario is one where the board values the veteran member's commitment, knowledge and service so much that it can't possibly bear to let all of that go. So it doesn't. Organization leaders may ignore their term limit policy - if it exists - and allow the vet to continue to serve indefinitely.

What's behind that reluctance to let go? Reasons probably vary as much as the individual situation. But at the core of most I've encountered is fear - fear that

  • You'll never find someone with this person's professional expertise. 
  • You'll lose the institutional history that he/she carries.
  • You'll never find someone as dedicated to your organization and your mission.  
  • You'll never replace that kind of leadership that you so desperately need. 
  • You'll lose stability in a time of transition.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does the prospect scare you? Does it scare you so much you freeze in term-limit fear?

Let me ask another question: what is the worst-case scenario? What if you bring your formal board relationship to a close and that person drops completely off the grid? What is lost, really? List your concerns. Be specific. Then ask yourself a follow-up: is this person the only source of what our board needs to govern? Really?

I'll acknowledge that exceptions may exist. Emergencies may require some of those exceptions. But let's be honest: in the vast majority of cases, the answer to that last question is no. This person is not the sole source of knowledge/expertise/energy/commitment available to your organization. It may be a unique mix, but it is not an irreplaceable mix.

I've served to the very end of maximum allowable board terms. I've served with, and interacted with, others in that situation. Here's a little secret that may ring familiar to your veterans: we get tired. We may march on out of a sense of commitment to you and/or your mission. We may love the work and our role in it. But we become fatigued. Sometimes, we know it. Sometimes, we sense it but ignore the pangs. Sometimes, we're completely blind to it. But once that fatigue sets in, it can hamper our performance and our overall leadership contribution.

Let's ask another question: what do term limits make possible? Here are a few personal observations:

  • It opens board seats and organizational opportunity to people with new perspectives and skill sets who also bring new energy to the boardroom. 
  • It introduces new members who can ask naive questions and force us to reflect on why we do what we do. In some cases, that reflection will affirm that we are on the right track. In others, it may prompt an opportunity to correct assumptions that no longer are completely accurate. Either way, the opportunity exists to articulate, affirm and change course where they make sense. It gives us a chance to challenge board complacency.
  • It creates opportunities to build a next generation of leaders who are committed and passionate about your work and your mission. (Because let's be honest, those "irreplaceable" board members didn't start out that way.)
  • It facilitates new connections to incoming members' personal and professional networks.

What do you really lose? In the end, maybe not as much as you think. As mentioned earlier, unless that retiring board member moves to a remote South Pacific island, his or her knowledge always will be available if you really need it. Maintaining institutional history is a legitimate concern, as boards who lack that context risk reinventing the organizational wheel. (Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt.) However, history is lost to the extent that we still act as if it only exists in board members' heads. If that's literally the case, you have bigger problems than a few board members overstaying their welcome. Having ways to capture and share essential information across board member generations - in the form of well-documented minutes, policies, board portals and other performance support mechanisms - mitigates the need for human sources of information. It's also just smart, sustainable business.

What about allowing retiring board members to take a year off before reappointing them for a fresh round? I get that question a lot, and my general response has been "That's an option..." But the more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to add a qualifier. Instead of a one-year break, make it two. Give yourself and your board member vet time to miss each other. Recruit well in the meantime. Recruit to not only fill the gap left by the retiring member but for your future governance needs. If at the end of two years time, you find that you simply can't live without each other, then consider a new round.  (But really. Think about it. Again. Really.)

Stated publicly or not, the notion that ending one's board service means ending one's commitment to your organization and your mission is a silly one. In fact, offering a metaphorical gold watch and sending them on their way is as big a mistake as not letting them slip from your grasp. Retired board members are perfect candidates for leadership roles in those initiatives you never seem to have time to flesh out. They can offer pro bono consulting in their area of expertise, without some of the ethical issues that can arise in board service. Retired board members can assist with reaching out to donors and public policymakers. They can be granted emeritus status or serve on an advisory board (though remember: advisory boards require their own kind of support).

There are other, legitimate ways to transition to a next chapter of contribution and commitment from our valued senior board members. Boards need to act as if that's the case - and it will be.


Paul Quin said...

Well done. The same should apply to Government.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Appreciate the feedback, Paul. Thanks!