As in professional sports and politics and any number of endeavors, some board members hang on way too long – long after their passion is gone, long after they have anything new to offer.
Nonprofit organizations are growing, changing organisms, and they need leaders with the capacity to envision the future in different ways.
If your board composition doesn’t change on a regular basis, organizational vision remains the same – and that can be deadly.
The value of term limits
I’m a strong proponent of term limits for board members – in other words, mandatory retirement.
Under the typical model, trustees are limited to a number of consecutive years on the board. The most common configurations are three 2-year terms, or two 3-year terms, for a total of six years in a row. At that point, board members “term out” or cycle off the board.
Particularly valuable trustees can return to the board after a year or two off, but the practice of term limits institutionalizes turnover and forces the board to seek out new blood, new energy, and new ideas.
How to turn over your board – gradually and respectfully
If you don’t yet have term limits, and your trustees just won’t go away, consider the following options.
Develop and institute a board job description. Clarifying mutual expectations and commitments – making them specific and tangible, rather than relying on assumptions – will help to level the playing field for all leaders.
Here’s a sample board job description you can use as-is or adapt to meet your needs.
Use this job description to initiate a self-evaluation process for all board members. Based on the evaluation, ineffective board members will sometimes re-commit to the work and improve their performance.
In other cases, individuals who can’t or won’t meet the standards will take the opportunity to bow out. “It’s a new era,” they’ll say, “and you’re looking for things I can’t provide.”
Include specific criteria for meeting attendance – for example, “Three consecutive unexcused absences will be considered resignation from the board.”
If people stop showing up – and stop communicating about why they don’t show up – you have explicit permission to replace them.
Of course, it would be prudent to talk with them first about why they’re missing so many meetings, and what this indicates about their desire and ability to serve on the board.
Create an “honorary board” or “emeritus board” for those leaving the governing board. If appropriate, you can keep the names of departing trustees on the letterhead and maintain their connection to the organization.
They can even be assigned specific tasks – for example, organizing a donor recognition event or hosting a house party. But the honorary board has no role in governing or managing the organization.
Note: For this strategy to work, the honorary board must be perceived as a place of honor rather than a pile of deadwood. Begin by recruiting two or three well-respected former trustees who, by allowing you to use their names, will set the proper tone.
Live with it. You need a critical mass of effective board members – for grassroots groups, typically five or six active and committed people – to be effective.
If things are working reasonably well, you may decide to accept reality: not everyone will serve with the same level of passion and skill.
Do the best you can with the people you’ve got.
The world changes – your board needs to change, too
Board roles and responsibilities evolve as nonprofits grow and change. Your current leaders may not be the right team to manage a growing staff, oversee expanding programs, or respond to significant changes in the marketplace.
Even in well-established, effective organizations, assumptions about community needs and how to best meet them must be regularly reviewed and challenged.
Bringing in new board members, with new perspectives, is essential to your long-term sustainability and success.
Note: This post is excerpted from Andy’s new book, What Every Board Member Should Know, Do, and Avoid.