Three reasons not to invite former board members back

One year off and then on again is the assumed rhythm of board life. The by-laws of almost all nonprofit organizations allow valued members to come back to the board after a 12-month respite. No surprise then if board members describe the familiar cycle as standard, or even, best practice for filling the board roster.But what if we discover that boardroom recycling has negative consequences for nonprofit organizations? What if following conventional wisdom doesn’t produce the anticipated results?

I’m sticking my neck out here by challenging the revolving door approach to board recruitment. However, I’ve seen enough bad come from this seemingly benign practice that I’m willing to risk stating my opinion on the topic.

A THREE-POINT CHARGE

My argument against re-deployments to nonprofit boardrooms is summed up in three points – at least for the moment. This is a work in process. I look to you, dear reader, to confirm if I’m on to something significant with the following.

Point #1.
It’s my observation that the pattern of one-year off, then back on again encourages a lax attitude toward succession planning. Why go looking for fresh faces when you can bring back old friends in 12 months’ time? In contrast, I’d like to think that understanding board service as a once and done deal would result in careful and continuous cultivation of likely future members. Knowing each board class must be filled with “new blood” should lead to a robust recruitment strategy.

Point #2.
Yesterday’s board members were recruited in response to yesterday’s challenges. Never mind how well they functioned during their “time.” It’s a new day. Although respectful of the past, exemplary boards know better than to rest on laurels. Their eyes are fixed firmly on the organization’s strategic vision and plan. If you truly believe, as I hope you do, that your organization will be no stronger than its board, you’ll make “new blood” a priority.

Point #3.
Recycling old friends onto the board limits the organization’s horizons. That “new blood” to which I just referred expands your organization’s outreach and opens doors to new funding prospects. And don’t worry about losing what former board members brought to the organization. If you have a plan for holding the hearts of former members, you’ll continue to benefit from their wealth, work, and wisdom. As the saying goes, “Make new friends  and keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” Both matter.

LEAVING WELL

Good-byes among friends are never easy. I’ve been there, done that, and still feel sad about it. However, life goes on and so should board members.

Blessed is the organization where, from day one, board members understand themselves as moving toward the time when they’ll step aside graciously and for good. Where board service is viewed as one more leg in a journey that can/will continue beyond the boardroom, one year off and then back on again will be no more. And to that, I say “Amen.”

Comments

  1. Nathan Yoder says:

    Good blog post Rebekah. A great reminder on the importance of focusing on the future even as it relates to board selection. It is amazing how quickly organizations can revert to the familiar when filling key positions. Thanks for the challenge to proactively work at strategic transitions.

    • I appreciate your comment, Nate. There’s comfort in the familiar, including in the boardroom, but as good leaders know, we (and that includes boards and organizations) grow when we step outside our comfort zones. It can be a jolt to the boardroom culture when newcomers challenge the status quo with a different set of questions and expectations.

  2. Thanks for your thinking out loud. I agree, the recycling of board members should not be automatic and standard practice. However, when there is no continuity institution memory can easily be lost and in a time of crisis the presence of trusted voices speaking from the board level is important in conveying the proper message to the broader constituency. Another thought; good board members are generous financial contributors to the nonprofit they serve; raising two issues in my mind: (1) Are the new members financially committed? (2) Amidst the revolving door of board service how will the generous supporters of the past be nurtured to maintain their giving levels AND as many approach the final chapters of life be involved in legacy gift conversations?

    • Bill, You’ve identified two reasons most frequently cited for bringing former members back after a one-year absence — maintenance of institutional memory and fear that gift support will end with the board term. I’ve worried about both these points in my years on boards, but I really do believe that there are other ways of addressing the concerns than by recycling the same folks again and again.

      In the case of institutional memory, one way of addressing this is by inviting former members to participate in activities such as board orientation, strategic planning committees, and in the transitioning of a new CEO. It takes intentionality, but then, intentionality is a good thing in all areas of a board’s functioning.

      As for the money issue, if we are clear in the recruitment process that there’s an expectation of financial generosity toward the organization, we lay the foundation for good gifts from new board members. That said, I want all members to give first because they genuinely care about the cause and second, because giving is what a good board member does. If the organization has thoroughly captured board members’ hearts, a donor-centered fundraising program should be able to pick up where board service ends. I’m likely overly optimistic about this, but in my work, I teach that a seat on the board shouldn’t be offered in hopes of a gift. Similarly, a board member shouldn’t be retained as a way of holding onto support.

      In your experience, how long does it take for a board member to become that “trusted voice” in a time of crisis? A board on which I serve is considering changing the by-law on term limits from two, three-year terms, to three, three-year terms. This is a national board that meets just three times a year. Our thinking is that the first term would be a time to learn the ropes. The middle term would allow for testing leadership skills on ad hoc assignments, special committees, etc. Board officers and committee chairs would come from the third term cohort. If we can get this moving, we’ll have a continuous stream of board leaders in the making and board members who rotate off can leave knowing their chair is well-filled.

  3. dorothy gish says:

    This can be a sticky issue. My experience has been that generally it is not advisable to bring former board members back on the board after a year as a sort of routine practice. However, there may be occasions for an exception; e.g. if the institution is facing a crises that the former member might be helpful in finding a solution or if the former member has been exception in pushing the board towards forward thinking. A board on which I serve where “institutional memory” was important can up with a solution making former members who had contributed critical questions of major financial support, charter members for a term. They were welcome but not obligated to attend the board meetings but had voice when they were present.

    • Thanks for the reminder that it’s wise never to say never. There are exceptions to almost every rule — including my suggestion about not bringing former board members back after a one-year respite. Thank you, also, for providing an example of how one board addressed the challenge of keeping organizational memory alive. I hope other boards take this advice to heart.

  4. Larry Perkins says:

    Hi Rebekah:
    I appreciated your perspective. Keeping a nonprofit board fresh and engaged continues to be a significant challenge. Perhaps one or other factors may be pertinent to consider. Perhaps in smaller non-profits the board members, because of their commitment to the mission, have a greater role in sustaining the vision for providing that nonprofit’s specific cluster of services. Single term board members may not become as engaged with that mission or vision, in that they only begin to discern the full significance of the non-profit’s service towards the end of the term. And in many cases those who volunteer for board roles with smaller non-profits may not have much prior experience as board members. So much energy is poured into their development in the first term, with the expectation that they will begin to provide greater benefit to the non-profit in their second term.
    Further, if the board of a non-profit operates as a close-knit team advancing the non-profit’s mission, then developing great team dynamics takes time, especially when it comes to building relationships of trust.
    I do agree that boards can age and lose their energy and dynamism without a sustained plan for renewal and generation of governance leadership. However, I still think there is wisdom in non-profit contexts particularly for a balanced, staged succession among the board members, allowing seasoned veterans provide some mentoring for new board members and empowering new members to ask new questions and offer diverse perspectives on perennial and new problems.

    • I completely agree with you, Larry, that it takes a full term (be that 3 or 4 years) for most board members to hit their stride, and like you, I hope that board members will continue on through the full number of allowable terms. I also second your good word about the importance of staged succession so that new members benefit from the wisdom of veteran trustees.

      However, once the allowable terms are up (e.g. 2 terms of 3 years, 2 terms of 4 years, 3 terms of 3 years, etc.) I think it’s best not to assume one year off, and then back on again. Six, eight, or perhaps up to 12 years is a hefty commitment of time to an organization, and we can assume that much changes within the operating environment over such a span of years. It’s likely that board members recruited in 2018 or 2020 will face issues that today’s boards can’t even imagine and for which the membership lacks expertise or the right networks.

  5. Tommy W Thomas says:

    Very well written and these responses are very helpful. Boards must be future oriented. Bringing new people who face different issues in their professional lives to a board can bring new energy to a board.

  6. I agree. I volunteered with an organization that was once considered a pioneer. Many individuals stayed on the board for 20, 30, or more years. One member was honored at the volunteer dinner for 40 years of service. Yet the institution was in crisis and falling fast from its level of national prominence, losing touch with both its community and its domain.

    • Such a sad story, Barbara, but one I’ve encountered as well. It’s unfortunate when board members are allowed (even encouraged) to out serve their “shelf life.” Term limits are a bit like the “best if used by (date)” messages on food and medicine. Most of the time, using an out-of-date product won’t kill you, but you don’t get as good an experience. You miss out on freshness and potency. Why would we choose to do this to ourselves and our organizations when there’s so much “fresh product” available and waiting to be used?

  7. David Lincoln says:

    I think you miss the point of the one year off. It is to comfortably get rid of those that you don’t want to continue on the board and keep those that you want to stay. The other way is to ask those you don’t want to stay to not stand for reelection but this is awkward so we put the one year rule into practice. In many cases those that we want back are invited to meetings during the year off as non voting guests. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath.

  8. David, I hope your suggestion that the one-year-off pattern is how boards should best deal with ineffective members comes in jest. To operate in this way brings an unhealthy passive-aggressiveness into governance. If board members understand from day-one that their continuing service to the end of the maximum term limit isn’t a given but rather will be subject to regular evaluation of the individual’s ability/willingness to meet clearly stated expectations, there should be less awkwardness in confronting less than ideal service.

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