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Passing the Torch — the why and how of term limits

Term Limits Calendar

Term lim­its are some­thing too many not-for-prof­its across Aotearoa are reluc­tant to instate or enforce.

The recycling trap

Instead, come the AGM trustees and offi­cers all too often agree — some­times awk­ward­ly or unen­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly — to roll over to anoth­er term or worse yet assume they are indis­pens­able and take on anoth­er one, two, three year or even longer term. I’ve worked with many boards that have had some trustees for over twen­ty years.

The rea­son most often giv­en is that these trustees have a wealth of his­tor­i­cal organ­i­sa­tion­al insight that is crit­i­cal to retain and keep. But in real­i­ty it seems to me that we don’t want to offend and sim­ply don’t know how to call time and say enough is enough.

We hope the hints will be tak­en and our long serv­ing trustee will draw their own con­clu­sion to move on. But the result is tired think­ing and habit­u­al deci­sion where the same old strate­gies pre­vail, per­son­al pro­tec­tion before organ­i­sa­tion­al needs creeps in, new skill-sets are not incor­po­rat­ed and trustee diver­si­ty is lack­ing.

Term lim­its are essen­tial for the health and well being of both the organ­i­sa­tion and the trustee. Term lim­its serve every­one.

A term limit prescription

My sug­ges­tion is that there should be a term lim­it of 12 or at the very out­side 15 years trustee ser­vice requir­ing a manda­to­ry stand down min­i­mum of at least one term.

When talk­ing terms I think that three years is a pret­ty good rule of thumb. When terms are stag­gered and over­lap­ping gov­er­nance con­ti­nu­ity can be kept with lit­tle or no dis­rup­tion.

Retaining executive knowledge though rollover

There is no doubt that long serv­ing trustees often have a wealth of his­to­ry and expe­ri­ence that is valu­able to the organ­i­sa­tion. They also often have key donor rela­tion­ships. I’d like to sug­gest that a non-vot­ing emer­i­tus sta­tus be award­ed these for­mer trustees. They can if they wish stay vital­i­ty con­nect­ed to social and vol­un­teer activ­i­ties, sup­port fund-rais­ing and may be called upon to pro­vide non-bind­ing advice.

Term lim­its reju­ve­nate – they keep your organisation’s gov­er­nance cur­rent and ensure its ongo­ing vital­i­ty and rel­e­vance.

Steve Tollestrup

Director at Ploughshare
Ploughshare's Director has worked in community development, local government and corporate management for over thirty years both in New Zealand and throughout the developing world. He brings a wealth of expertise in fundraising, governance, strategic planning, change management, leadership development and coaching, advocacy and public communication.
Steve Tollestrup

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