Your Board Members Have Got to Go (eventually)…

I was talking to a friend the other day about his involvement with a local nonprofit organization. He proudly noted that he has been on this organization’s board of directors for over 20 years, and was taken aback when my jaw dropped and I exclaimed, 


Once I recovered from my shock, I explained to my friend that board service is not intended to be a life sentence, and that he and the organization’s leadership are doing the nonprofit a disservice by allowing board members to stick around that long.

I have heard several arguments in support of long-term or even permanent board service. One is that long-term board members are valuable because they bring institutional memory that can help inform current and future decisions. Another is that board member recruitment is so challenging that it’s easier to just hold on to the board members that are willing to stay involved. The most egregious reason I’ve heard is that it’s easier to manage a nonprofit board when there are fewer new personalities to learn and navigate.

Seriously, friends. While some reasons may sound better than others, they’re all just excuses for bad nonprofit management behavior. Simple and plain.

First of all, it floors me that anyone would want to serve on a nonprofit board for 20 years…heck, I’m amazed that I am able to get some of my board members to serve the six years that are allowed by my organization’s bylaws. Board service is a volunteer duty that should have a fixed start and end point. Board members should know what to expect, what is expected of them, and understand that they are not intended as permanent fixtures in the organization.

Next, the nonprofit executive director who allows herself to slip into this sort of comfort zone with her board is failing at one of the most important leadership qualities there is: VISION. It is the executive director’s role to lead the nonprofit, and one of the most important aspects of this role is ensuring that the future of the organization is secure. The expertise your organization needed when it first started 5 or 10 years ago, for example, is not the same expertise it needs today. Nor should it be what you are looking for in a board member 5 or 10 years down the road. Nonprofits change, grow, and develop over their lifespan…and this requires a changing, growing and developing board to govern it.

Finally, and most importantly: I have never seen a set of nonprofit bylaws that intentionally allow for permanent board service. Every set of nonprofit bylaws includes language about board member election, terms, and most also include language about term limits. The bylaws are the primary governing document for any nonprofit, and failing to govern the organization according to the provisions therein is a huge problem.

Two quick asides: 

  1. If your bylaws do not include a provision about term limits, I strongly encourage you to get in there and fix that issue right away. You might lose your beloved 5-term board president, but you will also avoid many nightmares in the future. I promise, you will thank me later.
  2. You should be reviewing your bylaws on an annual basis, both to ensure they remain up to date, but also to remind everyone about their provisions and ensure they’re being followed.

The truth is that most board members do not keep track of their terms and when their service is supposed to expire. They rightfully rely on the organization’s executive director (or whoever the leader is in an all-volunteer organization) to make sure this issue is managed correctly. So, if the leader fails to pay attention or doesn’t prioritize board management, board members can easily be stuck with the organization far longer than they ever intended. And the organization can be equally stuck with them.

So friends, please take some time to review your bylaws and see what they say about board member terms. If you’re not following these provisions, figure out how to fix that. Depending on how bad the problem is, you may need to create a phased solution…but ignoring the issue of permanent board members will only create more problems in the future.

Nobody wants a stagnant nonprofit organization. Keeping your nonprofit fresh and current involves more than just introducing a new program or initiative every now and then. Preventing stagnation starts with the organization’s governance, ie: the board of directors. New blood creates new ideas and new opportunities. Don’t get so tied to any of your existing board members that you can’t imagine the organization without them. That’s contrary to best practice and harmful to any organization. Good board management is good nonprofit management. Do this part right and everything else in your organization will be better for it. I promise.