As you know, I am interested in and concerned about the good governance of nonprofits, especially the ones here in central New Jersey which we call home.Nonprofits differ in many ways from their private sector peers.  Ownership, oversight, and the mechanics of getting things done are all very different because of the active role that trustees play in the functioning and health of individual organizations.

I do quite a bit of governance training and am often asked to address term limits – how long can any one person serve on the board? As with many things in life, there is no one simple answer, but I do have an opinion on the subject.

Term limits are GOOD. No system of governance is perfect, but here are the pros and cons as I see them.

  • Trustees are volunteers who carry the extra responsibilities of governance, overseeing an organization in the public trust. It is serious business and commands attention and work. Volunteers are society’s good guys, and I never want to see one burn out. Term limits ensure that loyal workers remain active during their term (knowing there is an end) and therefore much more likely to remain attached to the nonprofit they have served after their board service is done.
  • Term limits help to regularly infuse an organization with new energy, talents, and thinking. I have sat in the room as new and eager trustees joined our board and I have felt a jolt of new energy come with them.  Fresh thinking is key to remaining relevant over time.
  • What about long-term institutional memory, you might ask?  Here’s my answer: every nonprofit is the cumulative result of the work of many people.  Staff, trustees, volunteers, supporters, clients and funders each carry part of the history, and all are responsible in their own way for the success or failure of an organization. To keep former trustees close, encourage them to work on committees, publicly reference their contributions every chance you get, and remind them one-on-one that they remain important and that their good work built current successes.
  • And one last thought that we’d usually prefer not to talk about: boards always struggle with how to manage an inactive or disruptive trustee. Term limits! Yes, term limits can be a helpful tool when things are not going well. A competent board will make a careful assessment after each term, even if its bylaws allow multiple terms, to make sure every trustee is still engaged and happy to serve. Term limits can provide graceful cover all around when continuing service is no longer feasible.

Service on a board is a privilege, and an honor—as well as hard, time-consuming work. Let’s make sure that service is gratifying, fun, and a rich source of good thinking and support as it is intended to be.

—Nancy Kieling, President, Princeton Area Community Foundation