Reprise: Term Limits for Board Directors

Reprise: Term Limits for Board Directors


5 September 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


It’s Rally week! And I hope that you will find a way to visit me at my table and/or attend my Fundraising 101 workshop. See you in Portland!


Instead of writing something fresh, I’m going to reprise a theme I’ve written about several times before – on Term Limits for Board Directors. The following contains excerpts from three different posts over the last ten years.

As always, your comments are warmly welcomed – Bring it On!


The way your organization operates now – the systems and processes by which it gets things done – either evolved or was intentionally created to meet the needs of the current status quo. To change the current status quo, you need to change the systems and processes that support it.

That’s why not having term limits for Board directors is such a bad idea. Boards without term limits have no incentive to recruit, and the necessary systems and processes related to recruitment are never really developed. Meanwhile, the assumption that one set of Board leaders will always evolve to meet the needs of future organizational iterations is nearly always flawed. Systems and assumptions get ingrained, and the land trust fails to evolve as well. Nature doesn’t work this way – why do we imagine that we should?

Plainly speaking, I can’t believe anyone is still debating this issue. A land trust’s core objective is to exist forever – in perpetuity. For the land trust to last forever, the Board must last forever, and for the Board to exist forever, it MUST evolve, adapt, and renew itself forever. Self-replication does not just happen. Adaptation must be a core organizational value. It must be culturally engrained. It must be systematically implemented – all the time – constantly – forever.

This doesn’t happen by accident.


My favorite model is three terms of three years each. A tenth year could be allowed for an Emeritus Chair, should the situation arise. Board directors terming off could continue to be involved as Advisors or serving on committees. Many term limit systems allow Board directors to return to Board service after sitting out a year. I think that is too short a period of time. Directors should sit out an entire term before returning – again the whole purpose of term limits is to constantly recruit new talent and develop leadership.

That said, my opinion is not about term limits as an isolated issue. In the ideal sense, a director might spend the first three years learning – getting familiar with the organization from top to bottom. S/he could spend the second term of three years doing – taking on small projects, being a “standard bearer” (conducting Board-level research to keep Standards and Practices fresh and present for everyone else), and/or representing the land trust in public. And s/he could spend the third term leading – chairing a standing committee or holding one of the officer positions. Leaders also serve as mentors for those in their first term. This implies a strong culture of institutional learning and leadership development.

This doesn’t happen by accident.


Among the many stories I heard at a recent conference, 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.

Everybody’s nightmare, right?


I really wish I had talked with her before she instituted term limits!

If I had, I would have told her that building a robust recruitment program comes first. Organizations that do not have term limits generally have no “bench” – a list of people who might be asked in the next few years, as Board positions open up. Instead of thinking ahead about who they really need, they tend to think about who they can get.

Organizations with term limits are constantly recruiting. They are always meeting new people always with an eye to 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.


I would have told her that she needs a place for Board directors to go after completing their Board service – an Emeritus Committee or a named Advisors Group. Such a group could also include prospective Board directors. The committee would be invited to a special event each year to celebrate organizational progress. They would be explicitly recruited to committee work. And they would be overtly involved in every Strategic Planning process.

Putting this Advisors Group together and organizing its activities does not happen overnight.

It also doesn’t happen by accident.


And I would have told her that transitioning into term limits does not mean that everyone with any tenure leaves at the same time. 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 directors 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. A Board director could theoretically serve for nine years before rotating off. The “transition” should therefore last at least nine years. Current Board members would be staggered such that some were assigned to be rotating off each year for those nine years. In this way, you don’t lose institutional memory and know-how all of a sudden. You have experience mentoring the newbies.

There really is no way to make this transition completely fair. Current Board directors 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 directors to learn more about their individual situations and explicitly ask them if they are still willing to serve under the new Board service and term limit 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 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: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Geof08 courtesy pixabay



Share this!
  • Lisa Haderlein
    Posted at 09:59h, 05 September

    David – I’m sure we’ve talked about this, but I think term limits are not necessary to have a healthy, diverse and evolving board. A culture of shared leadership can be fostered with or without lmiting terms.

    Consider that we are fine with EDs sticking around for decades (myself included), yet somehow, board members are considered stale after 9 years? Poppycock!

    At The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, we have a strong Governance Committee that is always brainstorming new board members – what skills we need, and who we think would be a good addition. Three years ago, two people actually approached us about joining the board, and the two people who were invited this year were thrilled to be asked.

    Two of the current 14 board members were on the board when I started 21 years ago, and they have been incredibly vauable allies, leaders and innovators. A couple other board members have been on the board for more than 15 years.

    I think that one of the reasons our board remains fresh without term limits is that we have very strict term limits for board officer positions. No one can serve more than 3 consecutive years in any officer position – even Treasurer. That has led us to have the attitude that every board member is potentially an officer. While there have been a couple of times when a President slid into the Secretary role after their term was up, it has been uncommon for officers to just trade jobs at the end of their three years. Currently, three of our officers have been on the board for between 2 and 5 years.

    Also, we currently have three former Presidents serving on the board, and have had as many as 5 former Presidents on the board.

    In conclusion, I think there are ways other than term limits to build a culture of shared leadership on a board.

    See you in Portland!


    • David Allen
      Posted at 15:55h, 06 September


      Thank you so much for writing. I think that you and McHenry are extraordinary, but you know that already. If it’s possible to agree in principle and disagree in practice, that’s where I am.

      I think term limits are not necessary to have a healthy, diverse and evolving board.
      I agree, but they help. Not having term limits is a common denominator for many land trusts that are struggling, and the argument for implementing new (and uncomfortable) systems for consistently recruiting and maintaining diversity is made easier when term limits are in play.

      Consider that we are fine with EDs sticking around for decades (myself included), yet somehow, board members are considered stale after 9 years? Poppycock!
      First, should we really be “fine” with EDs sticking around for decades? Poppycock back at you. I believe EDs sticking around for decades have the potential for creating their own sets of problems, making strong succession planning, sabbaticals, and the like critically important. There are plenty of examples of land trusts that have done it well and land trusts that have not. Second, I was actually advocating for a system that allows Board members to serve 18 years within a 21-year window, and then continue to serve as committee members and key advisors for as long as they wish afterward. And it has nothing to do with growing “stale.” I just see a greater long-term organizational gain by asking entrenched Board members to cede control and foster new leadership – at least every 20 years or so. Last, keep in mind that more than half of America’s land trusts do not have an ED.

      One of my research projects in the next few years will be to test a correlation between no-term-limit-organizations and the average age of contributing members. I already have some anecdotal evidence that land trust organizations with no term limits tend to have older-than-average contributing members. I don’t have enough evidence yet, but I will, and I’ll share the results.

      Love the pushback! Thank you so much for the comments – keep ’em coming!


      • Lisa Haderlein
        Posted at 17:02h, 07 September

        Great response! Thank you.

  • Chad
    Posted at 08:45h, 05 September

    We just updated our bylaws last week to include board term limits. This went hand-in-hand with having an active nominations committee and changing our understanding of board recruitment from a fixed three-month time period to a year-round ongoing process. We kept it to two three-year terms with 12 months in between but your three three-year term model makes sense, too. We struggled before as board members would stay on as long as possible and then just leave without a bench of replacements ready to go.