Galvin and Associates

The Problem with Board Term Limits



Have an open discussion with your board of directors about the potential benefits of dropping term limits. You are bound to hear responses like these:
• We don’t want to end up with a good old boys club
• We need fresh blood so the board doesn’t go stale
• We want more diversity on our board
• We don’t want the board to become out of touch with our constituency
• Board members need a rest after serving so many years
• We have always heard that good boards need term limits

It’s curious that these same people would never advocate for term limits to the players on their favorite sports team. Can you imagine benching the star quarterback for a year during a promising season because he has already led the team to the playoffs three years in a row? “It’s time to give someone else a chance to be quarterback for a while. We don’t want the team to get stale you know.”

If you swap out one-third of your players every year, then every year is going to be a building year.

It is good for a board to have official terms of service. But term limits tend to cause more problems than they solve. Here are a few:

Term limits cause an organizational learning disability. With new members rotating in continually the board has a weak institutional memory. They will tend to repeat the mistakes of the past. They will require board refresher training every 3-5 years because they keep forgetting how to govern.

Term limits drain board talent. When you bench your best players they will be difficult to replace. Board recruitment and orientation are time-intensive activities. Maybe your best players will be picked up by another team.

Term limits allow key donors to disengage. Retire a key donor? I suspect that term limits are often conveniently overlooked just prior to a major capital campaign.

Term limits weaken governance. When you retire an exceptional board chair and replace him or her with someone who has little experience, the board does not suddenly step up its game and get better at governing.

Term limits produce ineffective boards. Of course, some Executive Directors prefer it this way.
If a board decides to proceed with no term limits, it must have another mechanism for ending poor service. Getting stuck with the wrong board chair long-term can be disastrous for the organization. Board members who attend meetings faithfully but make no meaningful contribution to the board are taking up space and using up resources. Low-performing board members must be removed for optimal board functioning.

The solution involves short official terms, clear written expectations, and a robust board member assessment.

The shorter the terms the better. One board has one-year terms and board members are either asked to serve another or thanked for their service. Another has two-year terms and an assessment every two years. An organization with three-year or four-year terms can still opt for annual assessments.

This requires either a board chair or a governance committee with the courage to sit with each board member and have a heart-to-heart talk about their performance on the board. There is no way around this…and this is the real deal-breaker. Most boards are unable or unwilling to assess their own performance. We tend to be unwilling to speak the truth in love to one another.

The default solution to this problem is term limits. They serve as a passive mechanism to end poor service on a board. But term limits do not:
• Fix a failing board
• Make a board stronger or wiser
• Improve the ability to govern
• Revive a stale board
• Build cohesive teams
• Produce new vision

So would your board prefer an active mechanism of ending poor service using face-to-face performance reviews or a passive mechanism of term limits?

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