In my last post, I stated that sometimes being good leader is knowing when it is time to step back and allow others to lead. Some of the best leaders I know have graciously handed the reins to new people – often younger and more diverse people, though not always. These amazing people keep the mission of the organization at the forefront. They understand that fresh ideas and new voices are necessary to have the most impact.
That said, long-time leaders also offer a huge amount to an organization. I would never advocate for an organization having all of its board members leave at once. I do not believe that just because a person is older or white or male, they cannot add great value.
Term Limits Are Good
I am a big fan of term limits. I usually recommend three three-year terms for a total of nine years. I also recommend bringing on classes of board members. Depending on the size of your board, this might be three to five new board members each year while the same number exit each year. A total of nine years allows board members time to know the organization and understand the history before moving into leadership positions. Having classes means new people join every year as others leave.
Experience Helps Navigate Challenges
I am in my 60s and while I cannot say “I’ve seen it all,” I can say that I have seen a lot. I have been on boards shepherding organizations through market fluctuations and budgets cuts. I have served on boards where the organization has been sued by staff. I have been through CEO transitions and board chair transitions. I have seen organizations move to new offices, merge with other organizations, and even close up shop. My personal experience is mostly from the nonprofit perspective. But many of your board members will have incredibly valuable experience from their for-profit day jobs as well.
In some of the situations, board and staff leadership have handled challenging situations very well. In others, leaders (including me) have completely failed. I always reflect on these situations. What did we do right? What did we do wrong? How could we have done better? And I bring these experiences and these reflections to new situations. None are exactly alike, but the experience really helps navigate challenges.
Keep Dedicated, Open-Minded Leaders Close
Here are eight reasons to keep dedicated, thoughtful, and open-minded leaders close to the organization.
1. Historical Perspective
Long-time board members provide historical perspective. They know what has been tried before and why it was successful or failed. They know what was not tried and why it was rejected. This information is incredibly helpful when doing strategic planning. Perhaps a program was rejected but the situation has changed so trying again is worthwhile. Without the long-term view, a newer team might only know that it was rejected; not why.
2. Learn from Experience
Good leaders learn from past experiences – good and bad – and apply them effectively to new situations. Experienced leaders are less likely to panic when faced with a challenge because they have overcome similar challenges before.
3. Market and Economic Fluctuations
When the economy slows, there is more need for your services. But a slower economy and a falling market often mean donors are less generous. Leaders who have been through these situations can first of all offer hope. They know markets will turn around again. Your organization will have to tighten its belt, but with careful management and great messaging to donors, it will not fail. Experienced leaders also understand that this is the time sharpen your strategies and programs: What are you best at? Where do you have the most impact? What is your unique value? Sometimes a crisis is the best way to force an organization to focus.
Transitions are hard no matter the circumstances: A CEO moves after seven years to pursue the next step in their career. A new CEO leaves long before expected. A long-time or founding CEO departs to retire. A CEO is tragically ill or passes away. The board makes the difficult decision to fire a CEO. Nonprofit boards face all of these situations. Experienced leaders know to take a deep breath and work with the professional team and the board to make a solid plan of action. They have a framework from other situations – what has worked before, what has not worked – they do not have to reinvent the wheel. Experienced board members will have identified interim CEOs, selected search firms, and run or served on search committees — all valuable experiences to create a smooth transition. They can be a calming voice to keep both the professional leadership team and the rest of the staff focused on the mission during a time of disruption.
5. Capital Campaigns
Most board members have done some fundraising or maybe a lot of fundraising. But capital campaigns are different. You are asking for bigger dollars while trying not to undermine your regular annual campaign. What you ask for and the way you ask are different. Having great staff to lead you through a capital campaign is imperative. But having board leaders who have been through the process is also invaluable.
Starting a new nonprofit is definitely not for the feint of heart. If you are going to start a new organization, it is beneficial to have board members who have been through the process before, who understand the different stages of an organization, who know that at the beginning they need to roll up their sleeves and pitch in but are also ready to step back once the organization is on solid ground and able to hire staff. An experienced startup board member will have worked on Articles of Incorporation, By-laws, and Form 1023 for the IRS applying for nonprofit tax status. Individuals who have been through startups know that having a solid foundation is essential to growth in the future.
7. Diverse Board
If you find someone who has successfully diversified a nonprofit board, grab them and do not let them go. Having a diverse board is undeniably important. Getting there is really hard. While your organization will be different from the one this board member helped diversify, the lessons they learned will be indispensable. Read some of my previous posts on this topic here, here, and here.
Not many nonprofit organizations merge with each other. But it does happen – and probably should happen more. Board leaders who have been through the process before can help the board, staff, and other stakeholders remember to put the mission and impact first – before the organization itself. If more people can be served or served better, if more policies or laws can be changed, if your community will be stronger, then it is time to consider a merger. Sometimes organizations overlap so much in their missions, donors are confused and both organizations struggle. An experienced leader will also know how to think through the tough questions: Who will be the CEO of the newly merged organization? Who will stay on the board? What will happen to the staff? How do we redirect donor loyalty from one organization to the newly merged one? Lots of nuances. Having someone who has been there before can help smooth the path.
It all comes down to perspective. Good board leaders who have been through difficult situations before – and come through them – will be more optimistic and calmer. They can assure staff and stakeholders that the organization is resilient and will weather the challenge. Maybe even come out stronger.