I sat a nonprofit board committee a few years ago tasked with an overhaul of the organization’s bylaws. The bylaws hadn’t been updated in decades. It was an important and overdue task. An institution’s board mentality should be responsive to the realities of the time, and best practices change. As discussion on the new bylaws unfolded, a comment from one of the older board members that has stuck with me was a criticism of something we added: term limits. There were two parts:

What if we have problems attracting younger members? If they can only serve 12 years won’t that be a deterrent?

This was asked in an honest and well-intentioned way, but it underscored how sclerotic that board had become. The predominant mentality at that time was that board service in that organization was essentially a lifetime commitment. At the same time, those who had put in the most time were often the least intentional about outreach to potential new additions.

I’m generally a big fan of term limits. I think they force institutional clarity about the work being done, because there’s particular sensitivity to the need to perpetuate the culture of an institution whose board and leadership changes at specific times. And because we’re human, term limits of a higher order already exist. It makes sense to me to operate with specific terms in mind and stick with them, even if you decide not to enshrine them in your bylaws.

Fred Wilson’s Turning Your Team and Corporate Board Member’s Who’s Next In Line are both great for thinking about the importance not only of personal/mental term limits, but also about intentionally regenerating the youth of any board, committee, etc.