Thursday, May 06, 2010

New Practices in Board Terms

For many years, (probably 30, since I was an ED the first time) I've been preaching the benefits of having board terms. In that time, the concept of limiting board service has become best practice, and even required by some funders.

The standard is pretty much the same everywhere, with a tweak here or there: two 3-year terms for each member. Many organizations, due to a shortage of great board candidates, allow a member to come back on after a brief hiatus, perhaps one or two years.

Over the past two years, I've been getting emails from people challenging my stance on this issue, and I've begun to rethink the whole thing. The basic concern is that by forcing everyone to leave the board, a nonprofit can a: lose historic perspective in their policymakers and, b: lose the few true governing volunteer stalwarts who support the organization with real passion. Certainly both of these concerns are valid and worth considering.

So, what's the solution? Board turnover is still a good thing: it brings in new ideas and perspectives, and allows an organization to root out any policymaker deadwood. It gives board members a graceful exit from their job if they want it, and, like it or not, it is one of the standards by which governance is measured today.

Some nonprofits have come up with what I think is an interesting and innovative solution, one that bears watching. These organizations reserve some percentage of their board seats for exceptional board members who have both demonstrated their passion for the organization, and agree to stay. These members are offered a longer term after their first two terms, say five years, with an opportunity to extend that one more time.

I've seen this eight or nine times now, and the percentage of "reserved" seats ranges from 20% to 40%. The latter seems a bit high to me-and offers the opportunity to slide back into perpetual boards. 20-25% seems about right. On a 15 member board, 20% would be 3 seats. This "experience bloc" would certainly not always vote together, but would serve as a guide to other board members on tradition and prior activities that could be valuable. 3 members would also not be so many as to be "the old boys/girls club" and this inhibit new members from fully engaging.

As I said, I think this bears watching. I'm curious about what guidelines organizations use to pick this class of board members, and how the internal politics play out.

What do you think? Does your board have this policy in place or is it thinking about it? What percentage of seats would be reserved? Do you have guidelines? If so, please share them with us.

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