Do Nonprofit Boards Need Term Limits?

The answer to whether nonprofit boards need term limits is a resounding yes.

Term limits are a necessity of nonprofit board governance. Any organization that fights them, in our experience, has major issues to be resolved.

BoardSource offers a tremendous resource on the pros and cons of term limits. There is a reason why BoardSource considers term limits a best practice — they create a healthy culture, enable changes in leadership, and allow new voices to be heard. Without term limits, boards can have power dynamics that hinder inclusion and engagement.

Our view on this topic is that a lack of term limits is often a red flag for other, deeper problems. We share some term limit scenarios we’ve come across paired with quotes from board members, executive directors, and other stakeholders who have shared their experience and opinions with us.

If you see your organization in any of these quotes, then work with your governance chair to implement terms and limits on terms and begin the process of understanding what the barriers to terms has been. As one funder shared with me recently, “We need boards that are trained, that function, and understand their role.”

Scenario 1: No Term Limits and the Long-standing Board Members Like It That Way.

The long-standing board members often say, “we can never find anyone to take our place.” However, when you talk to some of the newer board members in this scenario, they do not feel welcome and often feel underutilized. The long-standing board members can hold court by dominating discussions, but even without that overt posturing, their continued presence impacts culture.

What we’ve heard:

“I’ve not felt like I’ve been able to offer things and I know I have things to offer. It’s like I go to a meeting, they read minutes, a couple of the guys talk all the time, and then we go home.”

“There are unspoken traditions of the board. This is how we operate, and this is how we meet. I really haven’t quite figured out what I’m doing there yet.”

“I think some people have left recently because they don’t feel like their input is helping, or that they’re not recognized, or that maybe they get talked over by the people that have been there for a long time.”

“The topic of [term limits and by-laws] has come up many times, and it keeps getting tabled by the same long term board members who won’t address the issue never mind the details of it. We’re so reluctant to even talk about it. I just can’t.”

“I think we would benefit from having a few more diverse voices on the board. A lot of the entrenched power in the board has been there a long time and it’s insular in my experience.”

Scenario 2: We Have Terms but No Limits on How Many Terms.

An organization may have terms, but if there is an unlimited number of terms a member can serve, then it’s just window dressing for “institutional knowledge” and a power struggle between a board and its executive director.

What we’ve heard:

“Institutional memory and having a history of knowing how the organization has existed is important. Without persons who serve on the board with a long history, then the CEO becomes a lot more powerful than the board does.”

“Sometimes knowing where we come from is important, but history is also a hindrance. Old ways of thinking, and not being able to evolve or develop where we go next and what’s coming next — that can be a barrier.”

“I’m not convinced that there are enough stable board members to pull [term limits] off.”

“All but one of the nonprofits I’ve been involved with has term limits. Not once have we ever enforced them.”

“It takes time to get things done and term limits could contribute to a lot of starts and stops.”

“Our legacy members have expressed concern that because we are a ‘working board’ we cannot afford to have term limits.”

Scenario 3: Lack of Terms and Limits Greatly Impacts Culture and Deepens Engagement Issues While Creating Issues for Chief Executives.

What we’ve heard:

“This board is checked out in ways that it really shouldn’t be because it’s not like they have a waiting line of individuals to get through the door.”

“We don’t always have a quorum, and don’t have consistent attendance at board meetings.”

“I can’t get a quorum. I have to text board members prior to a meeting and ask them to call in. I have committees that have never met, and board members assigned as chairpersons who don’t know they are chair.”

“The board still has a tendency to be tribal. At the end of the day, the board has to mature.”

“Overcoming the comfort of the status quo (unwillingness to embrace organizational change) is our greatest challenge.”

We will end with one more quote — this time, from Peter Drucker. If you do not have term limits, we hope this column spurs discussion and action at your organization.

“…renew the board with fresh appointments… The more power is concentrated in a few people on a board, the more likely the situation will turn unhealthy.” 

Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO

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