How Long Is Too Long to Serve on the Board?
One of the great things about the American people is their willingness to agree to serve on a nonprofit board. Millions and millions of individuals voluntarily serve on the more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in our country. After all, the nonprofit sector is the glue that keeps our society together especially during today’s challenging times. Every nonprofit organization needs dedicated and talented people to serve and provide leadership in partnership with the chief executive to sustain the mission and achieve its strategic goals.
The question that comes up repeatedly: How long should a person serve on a nonprofit board? There are many opinions about the issue of having term limits in place for board members. Some argue that losing long-term board members with institutional memory can have a negative impact on the organization. Others argue that the addition of “new blood” is healthy and beneficial to the organization’s success.
If those board members who felt tired or nonproductive voluntarily agreed to step down from the board, the need for term limits would not exist. The problem is that those individuals who no longer contribute to the organization in a meaningful manner often stay on the board a little longer than they should. Since my experience is that very few individuals voluntarily agree to step down from the board when they sense it is “time to go,” I strongly recommend that term limits be incorporated into your bylaws and governance practices for the following reasons:
- Serving on the board is a time-consuming job and everyone needs to occasionally recharge their batteries.
- Term limits ensure that fresh ideas, talents and new perspectives are brought to the board room.
- They also allow for the planned removal of poor performing or board members whose passion has become stale.
Every effort can still be made to keep long-serving board members involved in the organization, especially those who are well respected and whose knowledge of the organization’s history can be beneficial. For example, board members whose terms expire can:
- Serve on a board committee without serving on the full board.
- Participate in fundraising and development initiatives.
- Be part of an advisory board and called upon for advice on a wide range of issues.
It is best to stagger board terms so only a few board members leave each year. You do not want to lose more than one-third of your board at one time. I suggest that the term length be in the two-year to three-year range and that members serve a maximum number of three to four terms. This would ensure that no one board member serves more than 10 years on the board.
We should recognize and reward the dedication and years of service for those who have served with distinction on the nonprofit board. However, after serving on a board for 10 years, it is time to allow others to step up and take their rightful place as the next generation of board leaders ready and willing to serve.
Dennis C. Miller, the founder and chairman of DCM Associates Inc., is a nationally recognized expert in nonprofit leadership executive search, and board and leadership performance coaching with more than 35 years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country.
Dennis is an expert in board governance, leadership development, philanthropy and succession planning. He is the author of five books, including "A Guide to Recruiting Your Next CEO: The Executive Search Handbook for Nonprofit Boards."