January 18, 2011

Five Reasons Board Leaders Should Have Term Limits

Every few months (not an exaggeration), I have a conversation with an executive director who is struggling with a difficult relationship with his or her board chair.

One of the first questions to ask an executive director with a Board Chair From Hell is how much longer that chair has to serve. There are only two common answers: a year or two, or indefinitely.

Of the two possibilities, dealing with a disengaged or misbehaving board chair for a year or two is far less daunting, complicated, and demoralizing for an executive director than having a problem board chair for the foreseeable future. 

This is one of the most powerful arguments for term limits for board chairs.

Despite all the good reasons for board chair term limits, many organizations don't have them. According to BoardSource's 2010 Nonprofit Governance Index (a national survey of 1,750 board members and executive directors), one third of the organizations reported no term limits for board chairs.

And since survey participants were selected from BoardSource's membership, which tends to skew toward larger and more professionalized organizations, in the broader nonprofit world the number of board chairs without term limits may be even higher.

So for the thousands of executive directors, board members, and governance committee chairs who need to make a case for officer term limits—and for those who may never have given this topic much thought—here are my top five arguments for board-chair term limits:

  1. See above. Term limits provide a painless way for people who aren't doing a good job to retire gracefully and automatically. Admittedly, this is a pragmatic argument—and the downside is that a chair who is doing a fantastic job may get forced out early. But I've never heard a real-life complaint about term limits. And I've heard many complaints about their absence.
  2. Term limits help with recruitment. Serving as a board chair requires an intensive commitment of time and energy. Prospective chairs are more likely to agree to serve if they know the office has an expiration date.
  3. Term limits force organizations to develop new leaders. Boards that know they'll need a new chair every few years are more likely to recruit new members with an eye toward future leadership roles. And board candidates who want to build their own leadership skills will be more likely to say yes if they know there are opportunities to lead.
  4. Term limits help with fund raising. A board chair is potentially one of an organization's most powerful volunteer fund raisers. But chairs who serve for many years may exhaust their Rolodexes and grow tired of making the ask. Leadership transitions provide an opportunity to engage new prospects who have relationships with the new leader.
  5. Term limits lead to healthier boards. Admittedly, this is a catch-all intended to cover three or four other good arguments—because five is a nice round number. Board chair term limits reduce the likelihood that a few individuals will dominate board discussions and decisions. They provide periodic injections of new energy and ideas. And they help prevent board-chair burnout.

I'd love to hear some war stories from readers who have seen board chairs serve for too long. And from anyone who would like to push back.