Friday, July 17, 2009

How Long is Too Long? - Board Length of Service

This post was written by Shelley Heil, who has been interning at the Charities Review Council this summer. Shelley is pursuing degrees in Sociology and Spanish at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Individual board members can be passionate and effective, everything your organization needs, or they can be focused on one, limited objective and a source of frustration. How can nonprofits make sure there is some turnover of leadership (but not too much) and a fresh flow of ideas, without losing long-term vision and consistency?

This Standard is one that has received some of the most responses so far. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for organizations to face Founder's Syndrome. At the Council, we have interacted with nonprofits that are led by charismatic founders who are so strongly tied to the organization that donors think of themselves as giving to the individual, rather than the nonprofit. Some founders become so attached to their project that they become resistant to change and other’s input. They do not allow the organization to develop away from their original ideas and when they finally do leave, the organization is left to flounder.

The main idea behind the Standard is that organizations can avoid Founder’s Syndrome by bringing on new board members with fresh insights. Re-election appears to be the best way to determine who goes and stays while retaining the most effective contributors and not enabling others to stay on needlessly. According to the Standard, the number of consecutive board terms is not limited, thus, it is possible for a director to serve on the board for three, even four, decades. Such long-standing board membership has the potential to bring both good and bad results. It can be especially helpful in rural communities where recruiting a new batch of committed board members every few years can be a heavy burden. We hope that re-election prevents the board from becoming stagnant and allows the most valuable members to stay on as long as possible.

Do you think there is good reason to cut off the amount of time even really great and effective board members can serve? In other words, do you think there is a risk in making the number of terms that an individual can serve unlimited?

Next at bat: Board Orientation


Lori L. Jacobwith said...

I am very much in favor of term limits for board members but with the ability to return to the board after say a year rotating off. No need to lose great board members forever. But then take good care of those relationships with the rotated off board members to cause them to be effective and want to return.

Much of the work I do in the social profit sector is with boards of directors. I'm often invited in at the request of staff who is concerned about the effectiveness of the board. What I've found is that many organizations that do not have term limits for the board also don't have thorough communication with their board. Expectations are high but communication is minimal. By adding in communication around term limits it opens up the opportunity to have discussion and thorough communication about a whole host of other board & staff related topics: i.e. What is the role of the board in fundraising? How do the board & staff work together to keep donors connected to the organization? How does the board be more than a rubber stamp of staff reports?

mwera said...

Thanks, Lori. Appreciate your comment as well as you experience working with this issue. I especially like your point around the importance of communication and how term limits can serve as a catalyst for raising important questions.

We certainly heard suggestions like yours to build in a "rest" year. (Often I've seen it as serve 2 terms, be off the board for 1 year before a person could serve another term.) However, we heard even more strongly that limiting board terms can be too restrictive for small nonprofits or nonprofits in smaller communities. For this reason, we focused on re-election of board members instead.

You make some really great points, though, and I'd be interested how you'd respond to someone from a small nonprofit that feels that limiting term limits hurts its ability to retain effective board members. Thanks.

Heidi Christianson said...

Ususally my clients ask me about term limits when they have a problem board member. A book written by Jan Masaoka, and published in connection with the Wilder Foundation called "The Best of the Board Cafe" provides three suggestion for dealing with troublesome board members - those who don't pull their weight or cause trouble.

Here they are: 1) impose term limits (2) conduct a personal intervention and (3) impeach. I've watched many nonprofits go through each of these alternatives. I tend to think the best outcomes result from personal interventions - giving the low performer a chance to realistically review his or her performance, and an opportunity leave the board for a period of time. Many times the board member at issue is very relieved to have been given an opportunity to exit gracefully. If they aren't, adding term limits or impeachment work great. One is Minnesota nice, the other not so much...

Heidi Neff Christianson,

mwera said...

Thanks, Heidi. I think your comment goes along with Lori's earlier one about the importance of communication between board members and between board and staff. I think it's also interesting that terms limits could be viewed as a last resort in dealing with problematic board members.

I'd be interested in what other folks think about this.