Whack’em and Plague’em or Friends for Life: Term Limits
The master of ceremonies shouted out “and how many of you have been on your board for more than 60 years. Two old white guys whose knees sounded like rice krispies, stood up, holding on to one another, and said “63 years.” I frankly didn’t know what to think. Good for you or what the hell.
I made it a point to talk to them later. They were on the board of a credit union. Credit unions are a different sort of an animal. Board members don’t have to fundraise, but they do have to keep up with the ever-changing regulations governing their industry. At lunch, I made my way over to them and asked if I could join them. My first brilliant comment was “63 years is a long time.” Duh. Then I asked what changes they have seen in the people they serve. These two were so politically incorrect and racist that I can’t even report back what they said. One of the milder comments was “Girls are running households; boys are staying home with kids. Some girls are even making more than the boys.
The next week I worked with the board looking for a cure for a rare disease. One Board member said, “My father died of this disease, I will probably die in the next few years. I have a son who hasn’t been tested. He could have it too. What life I have left is to do everything I can to help those looking for a cure.” I asked him how long he had been on the board and he said 17 years. He joined right after his father died. He also shared that he had a fundraiser the year before that netted $350,000. He said that it is a drop in the bucket when it costs billions to bring a new medication or treatment to market.
Soooooo, term limits or not. I think the answer is a rousing, “It depends.”
- When you have turnover, new ideas emerge. When was the last time you sent a fax or tried to follow someone on My Space?
- When you have term limits, more people are educated about your cause and more people on the Board are educated by experts. I was doing a board retreat for a symphony, and one of the Board Members who was a physician explained how the score to a work is created. More than half the board, and I, this was all new information and fascinating.
- When you have term limits, you allow people to gracefully move on. I remember being on the board of the Learning Disabilities Association. When my term was up, both of my sons were in college and doing well. I was becoming more interested in domestic violence and moved on.
- It is sometimes very difficult to recruit board members, especially when the cause is esoteric, or the organization’s mission involves a rare genetic disease. Unlike many cancers, if I don’t have it today, I won’t have it tomorrow.
- You lose people who are passionate about your nonprofit. They have committed time and money and have shared their knowledge with friends, coworkers and family.
- You lose history and continuity. If your mission involves history or preservation, it would be counter-intuitive not to keep the most gifted historians.
Conclusion: Term limits should NEVER be used to get rid of underperforming or detrimental board members. Two are three years is too long to wait to get rid of someone whose agenda is not in concert with the strategy of the board. Or whose behavior does not reach a level of civility to proclaim this person as a team player. Get rid of them NOW. Your mission is too important.
If you have numerous people interested in your cause, go for term limits. If it is extremely difficult for the most gregarious advocate to find Board members, forget about term limits.
Whatever you do, evaluate your board members at the end of each term. The questions to ask are:
- What did you achieve in your last term?
- What would like to commit to in your next term?
If the answer is deafening silence, it is time to Whack’em and Plague’em.
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