Principle 17

Governing boards should establish clear policies and procedures setting the length of terms and the number of consecutive terms a board member may serve.

Every charitable organization should determine whether its best interests are served by limiting the length of time an individual may serve on its board. Some organizations have found that such limits help in bringing fresh energy, ideas and expertise to the board through new members. Others have concluded that term limits may deprive the organization of valuable experience, continuity and, in some cases, needed support. They believe organizations should rely solely on rigorous procedures for evaluating board members and removing those who are not able to fulfill their governance responsibilities effectively. Some family foundations may decide not to limit board terms if their donors expressed a wish that family members continue serving as long as they are willing and able.

Organizations that do limit the terms of board service should consider establishing a staggered term process that provides a continual flow of new participants while retaining a cadre of more experienced members. Many organizations find it useful to establish policies making board members eligible for re-election after taking a year or more off. It is always valuable to find ways in which members who have completed their service can continue to be engaged in the organization’s programs and services.

Organizations that choose not to limit the terms of board service should consider establishing a regular process whereby board members actively reflect on their own performance and ability to fulfill their board responsibilities and renew their commitment to continue serving on the board. Some organizations create an alumni council or honorary board to provide an easy option for board members who feel it is time to leave active service but still wish to be involved in the organization. Others specify the age at which a member must retire from the board.

Whether or not the organization establishes board term or age limits, it is always helpful to have a process for involving prospective board members on committees or task forces until there is an appropriate opening on the board.