25 Sep Implementing Term Limits is No Accident
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
I spent a lovely week last week in McAllen, Texas, at the Summit conference for Nature Center Administrators. I learned a lot and met some terrific folks involved in nature education all over the country.
Among the many stories I heard, there was this one:
I understand what you’re saying about term limits, but we tried implementing them, and it didn’t work. We used to have nine board members. Now we’re down to just four. The institutional memory is gone, and one Board member now serves on the Board of another nature center. But in some ways, even worse, is that the new people we have really don’t do as much. They are not as invested.
Boy, if that isn’t everybody’s nightmare about term limits!
I really wish I had had the conversation with her before she instituted term limits!
If I had, I would have told her that she needs to build a robust recruitment program before implementation. (Organizations that do not have term limits generally haven’t needed to cultivate interest in Board service.) They need a “bench” – a list of people who might be asked in the next few years, as Board positions open up. Without it, when someone decides to leave, the others gather round and speculate on who might make a good Board member. Essentially, they are recruiting that person from scratch. Instead of thinking about who they really need, they think about who they can get.
Organizations with term limits are constantly recruiting. They are always looking at who they should be cultivating, who might be coming off another Board just at the right time, and who might replace the specific needs (geography, diversity, skills, and so on) that are predictable and anticipated because of term limits.
This changeover from not needing to recruit to needing to recruit all the time does not happen overnight. It also doesn’t happen by accident.
If I had talked with her before her transition to term limits, I would have told her that she needs a place for Board members to go after completing their Board service – an Emeritus Committee or an Advisory Committee. Such a committee could also include prospective Board members. Everyone on the committee would be invited to a special event each year to celebrate organizational progress. They would be explicitly recruited to committee work. They would be involved right from the beginning as leaders in every Strategic Planning process. And they would be listed every year as Key Advisors on the organizational website.
Putting this Advisory Committee together and organizing its activities does not happen overnight. It also doesn’t happen by accident.
I would have told her that transitioning into term limits does not mean that everyone with any tenure leaves at the same time. Transitioning means staggering the terms to start. Some might leave right away. Some leave the next year, or over the course of the next few years. And at least one of the current Board members is there right through to the end of the transition.
For example, consider a transition to three-year terms with a limit of three terms. So someone could theoretically serve for nine years before needing to rotate off. The transition would therefore last at least nine years. The current Board members would need to be staggered such that some were assigned to be rotating off each year for those nine years. Even better might be a transition where Board members began to rotate off after the first two years or even three.
In this way, you don’t lose institutional memory and know-how all of a sudden. You have experience mentoring the newbies.
I would also have told her that there really is no way to make this transition completely fair. The current Board members need to buy into the need for the transition and willingly accept their roles in the implementation. Someone is going to have to go first, and that is never completely comfortable.
I suggest asking someone from the outside to serve as an objective arbitrator for the staggering. Have this person interview each of the current Board members to learn more about their individual situations and explicitly ask them if they are still willing to serve under the new Board service expectations. Then, based on what they learn, assign certain staggered term slots for each Board member. This person could be a consultant or an ED from another organization – just so they can be objective. Take the inevitable politics out of the decision.
Creating this staggering plan and organizing the implementation does not happen overnight. It also doesn’t happen by accident.
In the end, we are all term-limited by definition. No one will last in their positions forever. Organizations that have plans for orderly transitions of power – which is what term limits are designed to create – tend to be more robust, more resilient, and more sustainable than those that do not. I totally get it that some organizations have implemented term limits and felt like the transition failed – or even blew up in their faces. And I totally get that others look at those experiences, see their worst fears realized, and use them as justification for not supporting term limits themselves.
But these failures are not necessarily the fault of the idea, as much as, the fault of the implementation strategy. Transitioning from an organization without term limits to one using them will not happen overnight.
It also will not happen by accident.
Cheers, and have a great week.
PS: See you at Rally!
PPS: Some organizations allow Board members to start a completely new sequence of terms after sitting out for a year. In my experience, this simply means that they never really leave Board service. A better idea might be to sit out an entire term (3 years).
Photo by John Price courtesy of Stocksnap.io.