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Term limits: Expert advice on practical application

By Jan Breiner Frazer, managing member, Planningplus, LLC

Planningplus+ LLC partners with our clients to strategically achieve tangible results, meaningful impact, and a dynamic corporate culture for current and future success. Our core competencies include strategic and operational planning, board development and committee alignment, leadership development, and building the HR infrastructure. As a result of 30+ years of experience, we have developed a number of our own and unique approaches to working with clients.

Here is an idea for you to consider: Are board-term limits always a good idea?

Read any books or articles on board governance and the issue of term limits is always addressed. Best practices mix indicate that board members should have 3-year term limits, allow a year or two off the board, and then they can apply for another term. But is that always a good idea?

In our years of consulting with nonprofit boards, we consistently find that the most significant challenge for the organization is (and always has been) money – keeping the bottom line profitable to be able to serve more in need, recruit and retain employees, upgrade old facilities, add technology, etc., etc., etc. While the executive director is typically the chief fundraiser, along with a chief development officer, boards generally have some type of committees to support those efforts, such as resource development, marketing, public relations.

But from a board member’s perspective, knowing you have only signed on for three years how much long-sustaining work can you really get done?

Yet who better to role model active support during campaigns, fundraisers, and other revenue opportunities than board members who have consistently shown passion for and commitment to the organization over time? Those longer-term board members have lived the ups and downs, challenges and frustrations, and have significant institutional knowledge about the organization. Is it in the best interest of the board to require them to step off the board?

There are both pros and cons for term limits. Establishing term limits ensures the organization can periodically bring on new perspectives, new energy, new passions and new ideas. Oftentimes these fledgling board members can be the ones who ask “why” and challenge thinking. You need them.

You can also reduce the “we tried it and it didn’t work” mantras. Perhaps most important, it is an easy out for board members who sporadically attend board meetings, avoid committee assignments, don’t show up and support events or who just got burned out over time.

On the flip side, there are always board members who have made significant contributions to the organization, both in time and money and want to continue serving. During capital campaigns, critical funding initiatives, and/or turnaround times these board members have already shown the passion for the mission and with their institutional knowledge of the agency can make a case for support.

As an example, one of our long-term clients, Big Brothers Big Sisters, demonstrated the benefits of retaining long-term, active board members during its capital campaign for a new building. According to Darcey Palmer-Schultz, CEO, it was many of those board members, their contacts, and their time commitments that had a direct impact on the outcome of the campaign. Palmer-Schultz believes that long-term board membership is one of the most common threads in the nonprofit’s major donor base, and she cannot imagine achieving the same level of success without them.

Many boards designate an “emeritus” status for high-dollar donors who don’t want to have to attend board meetings but want to be connected. This is often found in fairly large boards. Our recommendation, however, goes a step farther – to designate a class of board members who best understand the organization and its history, who have participated in the tough lessons learned, and who can mentor new board members coming on board. They are active members of the board, attend and participate in board and committee meetings, and otherwise fulfill all the duties of a responsible board member. On an annual basis these members can choose to continue to serve on a year-by-year basis, and could constitute one-third or one-half of the board, dependent on the size of the board. When working with boards we often refer to this group as the leadership council.

Traditional board members are those elected for the three-year term. More often than not, they have done a great job but after serving a regular term are ready to step back and simply volunteer and/or financially support the organization. After a year or two off the board, they are welcome to again serve for a three-year term (assuming they fulfilled all the responsibilities of board members).

Whichever way you go, our point is that enforced term limits may not be in your organization’s best interests. Consider balancing long-term passion and institutional knowledge with the influx of new ideas and perspectives when it comes time for this year’s elections.

Utilizing our history in board development, committee structure, and board/CEO relationships, we can help.


Jan Breiner Frazier, managing member of Planning Plus, has been a consulting professional since 1987. She has designed and facilitated strategic, annual, and operational planning sessions for a multitude of organizations, often bringing together diverse philosophies, opinions, and perspectives to help groups collectively meet stated objectives. Often, her planning projects have resulted in assisting with organizational design and process improvement initiatives. Her work with nonprofit boards and associations has ranged from strategic planning, board development and committee structure to identifying organizational competencies. Prior to her consulting work, she was the personnel/marketing director for a multi-state wholesale/retail organization, with additional experience in administrative management in public accounting, law and utility construction. She can be reached at jfrazier@planningplusllc.com.

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