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[ASK AN EXPERT] Should Your Board Have Term Limits?

If So, How Do You Get There?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a development director who wants advice on how to enact board term limits:  

Dear Charity Clairity,

We don’t have term limits for our board and, as the development director, I think this is becoming a problem. Everyone is tired, they’ve given us all their contacts already and no one wants to try anything new. People seem leery of making any changes, and I’m not quite sure why. Are there some standards about board turnover I can share with my executive director so they can begin to understand the importance of transforming the board? And do you have any recommendations as to how to get there?

— Feeling Stagnant

Dear Feeling Stagnant,

You are right to be concerned about your organization’s lack of term limits. Boards need to be regularly refreshed, plus it’s important to have a place where promising volunteers and donors can be lifted up to leadership roles. While there is no legal requirement from the IRS, most states require a set term of years. But virtually no state sets a limit on the number of consecutive terms. In practice, the most common occurrence – found in the organization’s bylaws – is two three-year terms. Sometimes this is extended by a year if a board officer might otherwise prematurely be termed out of their office. And sometimes members can be invited to re-join after a several year hiatus.

Why organizations recycle old board members

Recycling is good for glass, paper, plastic and the like, but not ideal for boards. Reasons organizations don’t recruit new board members are they: (1) fear losing the loyalty of board members who give a lot of money; (2) simply don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, or (3) don’t know where to go to recruit new board members.

Considering how to ameliorate these challenges gives rise to two questions:

  1. What do we do to keep former board members engaged?
  2. How do we find new board members to recruit?

Let’s take a look at each of these separately.

An engaging new role for former board members

Sometimes breaking up is hard to do! Ideally, even though you’re going through a “separation,” you’ll want to remain close friends. Towards this end, it’s extraordinarily useful to have a place where board members can go as they transition off the board. My top three are:

  1. Emeritus Board Group (e.g., Advisory Board; Ambassadors; Guardians; Champions Council; Young Advocates, etc.). These groups generally have a certain prestige associated with them, including listing on your website, letterhead, and so forth. Some may include prospective board members as well.
  2. Board standing committee or subcommittee. There is no reason to limit committee membership to current board members. When people leave the board, conduct an exit interview in which you ask them if there are committees they’d like to stay on (or join) moving forward.
  3. Ad hoc committee with a particular assignment. Comprise these as needs arise. (For example: Capital or Endowment Campaign; Rebranding; New program; Audience development, etc.).


  1. Have a clear job description. If you want people to do more than offer their opinion on things (which is how “advice” is often interpreted), clarify the expectation they’ll take on one or more roles as an ambassador, advocate, or asker.
  2. Designate a volunteer leader. Like with anything else, someone must take charge, set the agenda, and follow up with members. You also want someone within the organization to staff this committee.
  3. Stay in touch. Treat each participant as close family members and “insiders.”

The role of the board development committee

This is also sometimes called a nominating or governance committee. Their responsibility is to solicit new member recommendations from current board and staff. As the development director, you’ll want to regularly review your donor base to consider who among your current supporters might make a good board candidate.

Generally, this committee will develop a matrix of qualities you’re looking for at any point in time. These qualities may be demographic, cultural, skills-based, or industry-based. This is the way to avoid having a homogenous board where everyone runs in the same circles, knows the same people, and thinks similarly. Look at your community; now, look at your board. Is the latter representative of the former? If not, begin with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of your current board so you can identify gaps. If you can’t find nominations from within, you might also reach out to businesses whose values align with yours. Or you could reach out to your state association of nonprofits, local United Way or Jewish Federation, local community foundation, local chamber of commerce, or volunteer center. Diversity is the hallmark of a healthy, growing organization.
It’s the committee’s exclusive job to extend invitations for an informational interview to potentially join the board. Individual board and staff should not do this; candidates need to be reviewed and vetted and, once selected, the right person to make the ask should be determined. Often the candidate will have an initial interview with whoever knows them best (e.g., executive director, development director; board member), followed by interviews with the nominating committee and then the board chair. Ultimately, the full board votes on the nomination.

This committee also often takes charge of keeping current members engaged through creation of a board development agenda. This can mean assuring there’s a skills development or program education component at every board meeting. Depending on your needs, you could have board presentations on Robert’s Rules of Order; board fiduciary role; how to read a nonprofit budget; board’s role in resource development, and so forth. The committee may also launch an annual board satisfaction assessment.

Finally, the committee should be responsible for assuring there is a board orientation process. [You can grab a checklist of what should be included in an orientation here.] Also make sure you have a board member job description. This should include making a meaningful financial donation. Problems arise when new members don’t know what’s expected of them, how the organization is funded, or who they can call on for support. A board orientation prevents expectations from being ambiguous and helps members hit the ground running. These are your marching orders to move from stagnant to dynamic. Hope you’re feeling it!

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Feeling Stagnant” did.)

Does your organization have set board term limits? Let us know in the comments! 

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