Every not-for-profit board I have been privileged to serve on had term limits in place when I left the board, if not so when I joined. That has been a strong position of mine for many years, and for good reasons, as my own experience amply demonstrated. The last board I led to change their policy in this area had been around for over 50 years, and still had some of the family members who had been instrumental in building the organization many years earlier.
The problem was that after so many years of defining policy and direction for the organization, they often considered their view the correct one and dissenting views as misguided. As they aged so did the vibrancy of the organization. Or, as a consultant quoted in the current issue of Nonprofit Business Advisor put it, “long-standing members are (frequently) too familiar with it and treat it like it’s their organization.” Our CEO maintained a solidly run organization that never ventured far from its roots. Strategic thinking revolved around doing a little more of what we’d been doing for 50 years.
By contrast, a regular requirement to invite new members to the board and make room for them by enacting mandatory exit of the “long-standing members” creates the opportunity for new ideas, new direction, new responses to an ever-changing world, especially when it comes to funding nonprofit services and re-inventing those services for today’s needs. Even if a board has room for new members but doesn’t remove the long-term members, those “old-timers” have great influence with the board and can often override new thinking simply by the influence on decision making that they’ve exercised over the years. In addition, potential directors with new ideas and new approaches will quickly tire of contending with the old guard every time an issue comes up. In my example the bond between the long-time members and the CEO was so strong that once the board transitioned to a more professional board, it was necessary to ask the CEO to retire in order to complete the transition to strategic thinking that ventured outside the box.
Today, according to a survey by accounting firm BDO, 26% of nonprofits with revenues over $25 million have total service durations of 10 or more years, including those with no term limits at all. Happily, only 6% of organizations below $25 million are similarly positioned.