Making Board Term Limits Work for You

Question: I’m on the board of a watershed group that’s probably not much different than other nonprofit boards: a few of my fellow board members do their fair share of organization-related work each week, show up to events, respond to emails, attend every board meeting, etc.  Others don’t.  We’ve been talking as a board about what the responsibilities of board members should be--what a fair distribution of labor within the organization would look like—but it hasn’t changed anyone’s behavior.  How do we work towards having a board where everyone takes their board responsibilities seriously?

Answer: The normal answer to this question probably has something to do with forming committees to make the work more manageable for each person, or giving all the members of the board the training and information they need to achieve what is expected of them, etc.  And under ideal circumstances—with a board full of people who are motivated and full of energy to work for your cause--that’s the answer I would give.

But the truth is, everyone comes onto a nonprofit board with a certain set of personal priorities.  Your lax board member might look perfect on paper: she’s a lawyer who is well connected in the community and knows a lot about website design, which is a skill your organization desperately needs right now.  She might also be a wonderful person who everyone loves (when she shows up). However, she’s also a mother of two with a fulltime job. She might really love what your organization does, and at the time she was asked to serve on the board, she probably thought she could do what was expected of her. But a year into her term, it’s become evident that she just doesn’t have the time or energy to do what’s required of her.

And this is one of the reasons you have board term limits in your by-laws. Not everyone has the time, personality, skill set or even interest in your cause to be a great board member—and it’s nobody’s fault when you bring on somebody who turns out to just be a board member by name and not action.  But board terms are a good way to gracefully transition a non-performing board member into another role in the organization—a funder, an occasional volunteer, a champion.  Whatever she can offer.
The mistake most boards make is holding on to a board member who might not be a great fit—for whatever reason—and hoping they can train them or badger them into doing a better job.  It’s hard to let people go when their term limit is up —even if you haven’t seen them in a year; I realize there’s a bit of comfort in having their name on your website.  Plus, who will take their place? It’s tough to find new people who are willing to do the job, too. 

But an organization is only as good as its leadership, and if a board member isn’t doing the job they signed up for, somebody out there will. It’s just a matter of finding them, sometimes through trial and error, but eventually through knowing the look and attributes of somebody who will be great.  That’s a learned skill, too.

My mom is a horse person, and for a long time she had a herd of about 20 horses that she used as therapy animals for disabled children.  And she was always trading and selling perfectly nice horses—horses I sometimes got attached to.  When I asked her how she could be so heartless as to sell Honey Bun or Pepper—such sweet horses!—she tried to explain that it was nothing personal: they just weren’t great for disabled kids to ride. There was no point in keeping one around that wasn’t doing its job. Period.

And it’s like that with nonprofit boards also: in the end it’s the health of the organization is that matters.  And that health depends so much on the quality of your herd.  So make those term limits work for you and get some fresh horses in your stable.

Good luck!