Setting Nonprofit Board Term Limits

“I think we want to see new voices and new ideas emerge- that’s art of the reason why term limits are a really useful thing.” – Barack Obama

The number one problem I see with nonprofit boards is a failure to have, or enforce, term limits. Good board members are hard to find, and feel impossible to replace. Recruitment is time consuming and often frustrating. It’s an easy responsibility to shirk, however not setting term limits can cause lots of problems:

Staleness. No new people means no new ideas are generated and inertia rules the day. People may keep doing the same things, but as time passes the law of diminishing returns sets in. Meetings become perfunctory, directors lose interest, and eventually the mission suffers.

Sudden Death. With no term limits there is no “natural” time to cycle off a board. This can lead to a large number of people deciding to leave in quick succession. A board of 12 can suddenly go down to six or four. Term limits provide a planned departure at regular intervals which can be staggered to prevent excessive turnover.

Isolation. Constant board recruitment forces nonprofits to expand their network. By not bringing on new members the organization’s circle of influence remains static and eventually shrinks. As a result fewer and fewer people can be counted on as donors, volunteers, or eventual board members.

Trapped. Every new board member joins with the best intentions, bringing a wealth of resources to the organization. Given time, however, some become less helpful, more opinionated, and downright difficult. Without term limits you are faced with two options, forcing their removal or living with their eternal presence.

Term limits don’t have to mean letting go completely though. Advisory boards, committee structures, and emeritus status are all possible ways to keep good members engaged. ESC can help you think through how best to reinvigorate your board while stewarding key individuals.