Debunking the Myth of Board Terms

In this post, we aim to give you clarity and offer some guidance about setting board terms that will satisfy the needs of these two different objectives and give you the best board terms for the ongoing sustainability of your organization.
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Trying to get a harmonious balance when setting the term limitations for your board members can seem a little challenging. Naturally, you want to retain your best board members, but you also want to attract new members too.

In this post, we aim to give you clarity and offer some guidance about setting board terms that will satisfy the needs of these two different objectives and give you the best board terms for the ongoing sustainability of your organization.

What is the benefit of board terms in non-profits?

Terms limits are favored in many regards because there is a belief that static boards present a number of challenges to the ongoing success of a non-profit.

In essence, they exist to ensure that the board remains dynamic, and gets a fresh perspective from new members, their ideas, skills, connections, and more. This raw new input can breathe new life into organizations and further sustain their success. When we consider the advancements of technology and its impact on society as a whole; these economic and societal changes mean that boards need to continually assess their skillsets to make sure their board retains its competency in a changing world.

Board term limitations will often give organizations the benefit of being able to change the makeup of a board to adapt to these changing needs.

Aside from this, non-profit boards may also encounter specific issues with unproductive or disengaged board members, and this could have a negative impact on the board and the organization. If a board member wanted to step down, or their contributions have become unproductive, term limitations provide an easy way for organizations and individuals to part ways when there is no longer a desire to serve.

Without term limitations in place, it makes the task of dealing with such an issue challenging, especially when this pattern of behavior is over a long period of time.

Other issues that could be encountered without board terms might include:

  • The existing team loses passion or tire-out
  • Individuals employ power-grabbing tactics
  • The Board starts to govern out of self-interest instead of community interest
  • Longer-serving members could intimate new members, resulting in fewer ideas
  • Reduced capacity to fundraise without any fresh input of ideas
  • Inability to move unproductive board members onwards
  • Board members who stay on solely because of a sense of duty

However, board terms in any non-profit can both help and hinder the organization.

Let’s say you have a highly driven, productive, long-serving board member who is about to reach their term. Do you really want to force a director to leave a non-profit when they are highly valued, and they have no desire to stop the outstanding work they do?

In this next section, we look at some of the reasons why non-profits decide to forgo board term limits and why having some flexibility in your terms could the best solution for the future of your organization.

What is the benefit of forgoing board terms in non-profits?


When you weigh up the pros and cons of board terms, there are typically more pros than cons for board terms on the whole. However, the terms that are set should always be considered carefully and never taken out-of-the-box; particularly when you consider the unique function of the board for your organization and its needs.

Long-serving board directors have a certain heritage in their roles that can only be earned with experience. Not only do they possess a deep understanding of the organization and its history, but they also have institutional knowledge, which is of significant benefit to non-profits. These pockets of information can be critical when seeking donations and grants, and they can truly help to convey the story of the non-profit, along with understanding the people who benefit from its existence.

Board turnover can also present non-profits with losses. These may include donors, volunteer hours, accessibility to networks, and more. There is also an additional burden of the time that needs to be invested in finding, recruiting, and introducing any replacement. In some cases, the cohesion of the team is impacted, and it may weaken the board’s leadership effectiveness as a whole.

By not having these mandatory terms in place; and using bylaws as a guideline, not a rule, organizations can avoid losing vital experience in their team while promoting a stable and consistent leadership. Aside from this, many committed board members will often have created steady streams of donations, which could be impacted by their departure.

In Boards with successful directors who do not wish to step down at the end of their term, or when the non-profit they serve has no desire to lose their contributions; the solution is crystal-clear.

So many non-profits still believe that board members MUST leave when the terms dictate their departure; when in fact, this simply isn’t the case.

Setting Board Terms That Support Your Organization’s Success

At present, there are no laws that require non-profits to have term limits in place. However, best practices still determine that, fundamentally, they give the majority of non-profits a good foundational structure to work from, and they remain a highly democratic way to refresh the board.

For some organizations, seeking out, recruiting, and on-boarding new members every other year is time-consuming, costly, and counter-productive to their overall goals. While there are pros and cons to support each side of the debate; the individuality of a non-profit, and its work should be the overall determining factor when deciding how the term limits will impact the function of the organization, and whether or not they are right for your board members.

The simple fact of the matter is that a non-profit board has the ability to set rules, and they can also change these rules too.

A great leader can offer commitment, momentum, experience, mentorship, and they can drive growth, sustainability, and lasting connections within the donor community. Slight variations to bylaws, in combination with a little innovativeness and creativity can help non-profits retain their valued board members; while still being able to effectively manage stagnated or underproductive members.

Here are just a few widely regarded choices that can help your non-profits reap the rewards of retaining board members who might have otherwise had to leave due to term limits.

  • Make changes to your term limitation period
    If your present terms consist of 2 x 3-year terms, considering changing this to 3 x 3-year terms, but with a caveat that this is only applicable to board members with outstanding qualities. You will need to outline in writing what constitutes ‘outstanding’, and your nominating committee will need to abide by this.
  • Introduce a new position
    Use the bylaws to create a specialist position, and request a board member to remain in situ, but with a new role. For instance, a recognition group chair, campaign chair, new membership group chair, or other.
  • Use the committee
    Another way you can keep hold of your superstars without opening up an automatic route for all is to use a two-thirds majority of the executive committee or board. Using this recommendation process will help you retain your valued people by exception.

In Summary

The key takeaway here is to remember that the bylaws can be dynamic, and they can be changed. They are intended to guide your decisions, not rule them.

Great non-profit leaders can help attract great people to your organization. When you have someone in that post who is successful, passionate, committed, and more; it seems counter-intuitive to force their departure at a time that could negatively impact the individual, the organization, and its future sustainability.

The right solution for your non-profit does exist, and we are here to help you find it.

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