Have You Reached Your Limit?

A recent television commercial boasts, “More is better. We want more!”.  Arts and cultural organizations have meditated on this mantra for years – they can always use “more.” More money. More staff. More donors. More everything. But, can there be too much of a good thing? In some cases, RSC says, “yes”.  Take, for instance, the tenure of a board member and the idea of term limits.

What -- No Bait Left?

Successful non-profit boards and staffs build their fundraising programs through “relationship-based” fundraising. Simply put, it’s about asking people who you actually know to support the organization.  When done correctly, it provides very effective fundraising leverage. The down side is that each board member has a finite number of relationships – the “black book” is only so thick. In the long run, the less your organization rotates board members, the fewer new relationships you’ll have over time – and your fundraising efforts will certainly suffer.

For that reason alone, your organization should exercise term limits on its board. Loyal and active board members sometimes balk at this idea, but RSC’s conclusion is that a board member serving 20+ years has likely tapped his/her community connections – and the well of new names ran dry years ago. So, exercising term limits to make room for new relationships becomes essential.

Your fundraising isn’t the only thing to suffer. Good governance is also at risk. Each board member comes with a limited set of views, ideas and solutions. A mix of seasoned and fresh perspectives is a great recipe for creative problem solving and relationship building – but quickly gets stale when the board doesn’t change.

RSC believes successful nonprofits are aligned with their community’s needs. One way to build that continuity is to expand the board in a way that allows a variety of people (with a variety of community backgrounds) to serve. Over time, allowing this broader group to own the ‘organizational mission’ creates more stewards and caretakers throughout the community. More ownership means more buy-in. More problem-solving. More support.

Is there a downside to enforcing term limits? Perhaps – but there are also plenty of opportunities, too.  Institutional history is a valuable resource – so keep it! Just because someone is rotating off of the board doesn’t mean they have to rotate out of the organization. Keep them engaged in an advisory capacity as your organization looks to the future. They have an emotional connection that inspires others. Channel that dedication by implementing a succession plan that engages these long time supporters in new ways. Create an advisory board to keep long-time members engaged. Put them on a committee or a task force.  Just create an engagement strategy for those who want to be engaged beyond board leadership.

If your board does not have or exercise its term limits, ask “why not?” Start the conversation in your governance/nominating committee meetings. Research and outline the important reasons for change. Determine an adequate board size and build a strategy to reach your organization’s goals over the next few years. Be sure to develop and nurture a quality board volunteer experience that also benefits your organization. The board should always lead this conversation – not the staff.

Change can be uncomfortable and it takes time, so take the long view. When bringing on new board members, invest in their learning curve, even if it doesn’t feel efficient at first. Building productive momentum takes time, but the payoff is meaningful – organizational sustainability and broader ownership of stakeholders.

During any board transition, a thoughtful process is needed – and RSC can help. When done correctly, your board members will be happy and productive, even as their role changes and matures. New supporters are eager to be engaged as volunteers, and over the years, new energy permeates and strengthens the entire organization.

Healthy leadership. Healthy organization. Sustainable future. There’s no limit!

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