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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
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