Board Term Limits: What’s Best for Your Chorus?

Do your board members serve for prescribed terms? Two years? Three years? Do you limit the number of terms they can serve? After checking with choruses across the U.S.—emerging and mature, staffed and all-volunteer, and in varying stages of evolution—consultant Susan Howlett discovered that some chorus boards have term limits, some do not, and others have them but enforce them inconsistently. She explores what might be best for your chorus.

Term limits define how long board members can serve your organization. Because there are no laws that mandate board terms, each organization is at liberty to determine whether and how to employ them. 

I encourage nonprofits to institute (and adhere to) term limits to keep the board from getting stuck doing business as usual. Requiring turnover among leaders guards against stagnation, toxic or unproductive members, and unhealthy power dynamics. The most common term length across the nonprofit sector—and the one I usually recommend to organizations—is three years, repeatable once, for a maximum of six years.

Whether board term limits are right for your chorus is up to you. The important thing is that the decision should be made in the context of an intentional conversation that gets revisited from time to time.


Why Limits Are Considered Best Practice

All boards benefit from having members with institutional memory and deep familiarity with the inner workings of the chorus. But people with long tenure often get used to things as they’ve been and have a hard time imagining other ways of addressing challenges or opportunities. You may have heard long-serving board members utter things like “We tried that before.” But that previous attempt might have been executed poorly or under different circumstances. Or when asked about a particular practice, their justification is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  But they may never have explored whether there are more effective strategies.

Without term limits, nonprofits may unwittingly allow people to remain in the leadership for so long that they are granted power or influence based on tenure alone. And sometimes, they assume they deserve power based solely on their deep love of the organization, or because they’ve contributed lots of money. These situations can get in the way of newer leaders who bring skills, talents, and access in addition to passion and financial support.

Larry Speakman, founder of Concert Singers of Cary, North Carolina, says the problem with keeping some individuals too long is that it’s difficult to replace them when they’re gone. One beloved trustee served over 20 years as board chair, but it took three new board members to take on his workload when he finally left. Speakman, who is currently board chair of the Bach Society of Charleston, South Carolina, cautions that when some individuals hold too much power for too long, it can feel like a fiefdom. He’s witnessed that phenomenon in both small, unstaffed organizations where the board has all the power, and larger institutions, where an individual may hold unwarranted power due to generous financial contributions or their real or perceived influence in the community.

Even if seasoned trustees are proud of being walking versions of the organization’s archives, allowing them to remain indefinitely “puts undue pressure on them to be the holders of that information,” according to Karin Brookes, executive director of Early Music America. The organization’s board president, Scott Jarrett, adds that all boards need a balance of historic and fresh perspectives. Jarrett, who is also music director of the Back Bay Chorale in Boston, affirms that if trustees know they have only six years to serve, they will likely work harder, make more thoughtful decisions, and engage more meaningfully as they consider what legacy they want to leave. Erin Guinup, conductor of the Tacoma (Washington) Refugee Chorus, notes that her chair, seeing the end of his term approaching, felt a renewed sense of purpose as he worked to achieve his goals.

Guinup observes that a regular infusion of new members is important because they “ask valuable questions, cause us to look at challenges differently, and help improve our systems.” And as we move toward having boards that truly reflect the communities we serve, we need to free up board positions for people who may not have been in our stakeholder pool for years. Making room for new people to join the board spreads the sense of ownership of the organization among many. And the more people who feel like the organization is theirs, the more advocates and ambassadors you have and the more money you’ll raise. In my experience, generosity is an organic outgrowth of having a sense of ownership of any nonprofit, so spreading that ownership around is good for your bottom line.

We also need different people in the leadership at different stages of our organization’s evolution. Leaders who were brought on when the organization was young and scrappy may not be appropriate when the organization moves into a more sophisticated stage. Garrett Murphy, executive director of the Back Bay Chorale, notes that “obligatory transitions have afforded us opportunities to progress from being a largely operational board to a governing board.”     


How Term Limits Can Limit Leadership

Term limits can pose a problem for smaller choruses with mostly singer-members on the board. Katie Skovholt, executive director of Seattle Pro Musica, says they’ve had two highly qualified treasurers serving during her tenure, both choir members with day jobs in finance and accounting. The first one held the treasurer position for 22 years, helping bring Pro Musica into an era of financial stability by putting multiple measures in place to adopt and steward a reserve fund and investment account. If the relationship is working well, like that one, the board might be reluctant to ask someone to step down. Skovholt muses that it’s harder to find mission-passionate, qualified community members for small groups like hers than it is for larger institutions, who may not need the board to offer expertise (such as marketing, fundraising, and finance) if they have adequate staff. So small organizations that have passionate trustees may actually be harmed by term limits.

Lisa Bury, chief advancement and strategy officer at the Dallas Opera, mentions another board with term limits that is about to lose its shining star of a young board member just as he’s becoming an empty nester and approaching his prime wage-earning years. In order to retain a prized board member, some nonprofits’ bylaws allow a trustee whose term has been fulfilled to come back on the board after taking a year off. In fact, board member Sandra Pelfrey says that Amarillo Opera has a provision for the president of the board to offer a valued board member whose six-year term has ended an appointment to a one-year term as a non-voting member.  When the year of appointment is over, the person may potentially come back on the board for another six years as a voting member. 

But if you choose to invite former board members back, make it clear that they can’t just pick up where they left off; they’ll need to watch and listen and modify their opinions or behavior to reflect the new realities. Hopefully, your board is changing all the time to respond to demographic shifts in your community or organizational priorities that speak to the current environment. Previous board members need to be willing to adjust to new board priorities and norms.

Goodwin Deacon, board member of the Medieval Women’s Choir in Seattle, has seen occasions in her long choral career where term limits were called into play if a group wanted to get rid of someone—but ignored when they were inconvenient. While this may be common, intermittent enforcement is unfair and can cause resentment among other members.

BoardSource, a national organization that promotes best practices in nonprofit governance, suggests that other downsides to term limits are the amount of time the board spends on recruitment and orientation, and the additional efforts needed to integrate new members and keep the group cohesive.


Considerations as You Ponder Term Limits

The Tacoma Refugee Choir is less than three years old, so it is only beginning to address the topic of term limits. But conductor Erin Guinup says the board acknowledges that the group’s mission will be best served by transition, so they want to formally establish term limits for the future when they revise their bylaws this spring. If your board is considering whether to adopt term limits, here are some additional considerations.

If you’re moving from having no limits to imposing them, that will undoubtedly affect some people who will no longer be able to remain on the board. How will you hold those conversations so that individuals don’t feel targeted? One way to address that is to have leaders do some research on best practices (the website is a good resource) and reach out to other choirs you admire to discover whether they have limits and why or why not. That makes the conversation more about data and what’s in the best interest of your organization over time rather than about specific personalities and opinions.

Should you decide to implement term limits, carefully consider what will happen to the people who’ll be asked to step down. Make sure there’s someplace for them to go that doesn’t feel like they’re being “put out to pasture.” You could create a special task force for someone to lead, perhaps about a topic that the board hasn’t had time to address. Or you could assign someone to a one-time project, such as putting together the organization’s archives or holding a reunion of former board members or singers who have drifted away from the organization over time.

Some organizations have created advisory boards where board members whose terms have expired can remain connected to the organization with a role to play. Others offer emeritus status to valuable trustees who can no longer serve. Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society has two bodies: a board of governors and a board of overseers, who are advocates and supporters, plus a few emeritus governors. Make sure people deserve the new titles you bestow on them, and be sure to put the leaders to use. Don’t just park them somewhere and leave them alone. 

Brookes says a lot of her work at Early Music America is focused on keeping former board members engaged, and many of them continue to contribute in meaningful ways—both financially and otherwise. “With good communication and stewardship, that fabulous board member will stay connected after they step down.” Brookes goes on: “However hard it is to lose a worthwhile board member whose term has ended, it’s far worse to have board members serve for longer than is healthy for the organization.” 

Linda Gingrich, founder, conductor, and artistic director of Master Chorus Eastside in Issaquah, Washington, used to hang on to old board members because recruiting new ones was so hard.  But she’s discovered that it’s much easier to attract new board members if they’re not being asked to do everything. “We’ve put a fair amount of emphasis and effort into getting singers to volunteer for things the board used to do, including fundraising, writing thank-you notes, and helping me plan the concert season, all of which has taken some burden off the board.”

Whether you decide to adopt term limits or not, I recommend periodic assessments of whether your choice is working. Schedule a conversation at a board meeting once every year or so to clarify expectations, to remind people how governance is distinct from management, and to emphasize the importance of inclusive conversations that allow everyone to participate fully. Discuss whether your recruitment process is robust enough and whether you have a pipeline of potential leaders ready to step in when needed. (For more information, see my article “Transitioning to a Community Board.")

I also suggest you review each board member’s participation annually, regardless of when their term ends.  Find out

  • How they feel about the assignments they’ve been given
  • Whether their personal life is affecting their participation
  • Whether they feel like they’re adding value
  • Whether they’re actually enjoying their service

This offers the opportunity to visit with each board member once a year about their level of commitment and offer a gracious way for them to exit or an opportunity to address disappointing behavior. Sometimes, people remain on the board simply because they don’t believe there’s anyone available to take their place, but if there’s a healthy leadership development process, that shouldn’t be a problem. Making this an annual occasion for every leader helps create regular opportunities to assess people’s enthusiasm and appropriateness.

As president of the board of Early Music America this year, Scott Jarrett realizes that he has a finite amount of time to devote to that role, so he needs to be strategic and intentional about what he can accomplish. However your chorus decides to handle term limits, he urges every nonprofit to make sure that each board member has a plan for what they want to contribute during their tenure—whether that’s three years or a lifetime.

Susan Howlett has been raising money joyfully for over 40 years, as a trustee, development director, executive director, and consultant to thousands of nonprofits nationwide.


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