Foundation boards hold the privilege and power to influence social change with trillions in assets under management and annual grantmaking in the billions.

Yet too often, governance models cling to the tradition of lifetime appointments with no term limits for board members. This complacency risks stagnation, thwarts impact, and prevents accountability to evolving community needs. Implementing thoughtful term limits provides essential catalysts for continuous improvement.

What exactly are board term limits? Simply put, they are rules that require board members to step down from their positions after serving a set number of terms. Many nonprofit and foundation boards have term limits of two or three terms lasting around three years each.

The problems caused by not having term limits for board members are plentiful.

Here are the top seven I’ve seen advising hundreds of foundations for the past 25 years:

1. Entitlement
Trustees without term limits can easily embrace a mindset of entitlement, where board positions are viewed as rewards rather than responsibilities.

2.  Self-Serving Tendencies
Those granted lifetime board appointments have little incentive to leave the power, prestige, and access their positions provide.

3. Stagnation
Without enforced turnover through term limits, the same people work together on foundation boards for decades. Ideas recycle and innovation stifles. Power imbalances perpetually dominate discussions. And the energy? Well, it’s often about as vibrant as a room full of napping cats!

4.  Ineffectiveness
Many trustees with lifetime appointments stay on the board long past the time they can contribute. Several of my family foundation clients had elderly board members who regularly slept through meetings. Another developed dementia but stayed on the board for another two years before it became physically impossible for her to continue.

5. Groupthink
Without term limits for board members, foundation trustees can fall into groupthink faster than teenagers on a fashion trend. Risk-taking dies and foundations stick to tradition rather than embracing change to drive impact on shifting community priorities.

6. Homogeneity
An important value of board term limits is they allow for increased and ongoing diversity in all forms such as ethnicity, race, lived experience, professional experience, expertise, geography, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. As one of my current clients adeptly shared with me, “It just makes good business sense to have a diverse team. Diversity helps your organization perform better.

7. Next Generation Disengagement
The lack of term limits for board members means trustees can continue serving into their 90s. In the meantime, there are likely many “next generation” family members – adult children and grandchildren – who would like to get involved but see no opportunity or path to board service.

Read the full article about foundation boards term limits by Kris Putnam-Walkerly at Kris Putnam-Walkerly.