Should you set time limits on board service?

“As a general rule, it’s always easier to grow a board than to shrink it,” says Keith Whitaker of Wise Counsel Research. “Once people are on there, it’s very hard to dislodge them.” A workaround that avoids the potential for confrontation and damaged relationships is a term-limit policy. After a set period—say, three years—board members must be re-elected to another term or transition off the board entirely.

Some policies add a hard limit to the number of terms a board member might serve, but you may want to leave open the option for well-aligned board members, rich in relational and institutional knowledge about you and your giving, to serve for long periods. Even in those cases, simple term limits offer an opportunity to make changes when necessary.

Some boards choose to apply this policy only to the term of the chairman and not the individual members. So long as there are no concerns about adherence to donor intent, this can be a healthy way of sharing the burden of leadership.

Stopping short of establishing firm term limits, there are many “creative ways to bring people into the fold without handing them the reins,” Whitaker notes. If you are seeking knowledgeable advice around particular issues or communities, or connections with other funders, structures are available that don’t include governing authority.

You may, for example, establish an advisory council for one of your grantmaking areas. In a family foundation you may create a junior or adjunct board for family members who wish to participate in your philanthropy but who will not have a vote in decisions of the governing board. Non-voting advisers may be permitted to make grants up to a certain amount annually so long as they fall within the foundation’s mission and do not violate donor intent.