Keeping Your Board Fresh

The benefits of rotation outweigh the risks

By Mark J. Joffe

I once invited a professional colleague of mine to a meeting of my organization’s board of directors. About midway through the meeting, I turned to him and whispered, “What do you think?”

“Lifeless,” he whispered back.

“What do you mean?” I asked, incredulously. “Are you saying my directors are too old?”

“It’s not that they’re old, it’s that they’ve been on your board forever,” he said. “Your board has become their communal final resting place. After they’ve served on all the other boards, they wind up on your board, where they stay forever!”

I was stunned, but took his harsh assessment to heart.

True, many of my board members had served for years and years. Several had been quite charitable, and most were deeply dedicated to the organization. I knew “board rotation” was supposed to be healthy. But it just seemed unfair – and counterproductive – to remove volunteers who had served so loyally!

I later learned that bringing in “fresh blood” has tremendous benefits that outweigh the down sides. Sure, some directors are wary of newcomers (aka interlopers) who just don’t understand the way things are done! But most welcome a fresh face – and the fresh ideas that she or he bring to the table.

Might you lose some financial support by replacing veteran directors with new ones not fully invested in the organization? Absolutely. But if you have done a good job of board and donor stewardship, the directors you rotate off will continue supporting the organization – and may actually be relieved they no longer have to attend meetings!

The new leaders I brought onto my board introduced a more strategic type of thinking and contributed high-tech expertise that some of the longer-serving directors did not have. They were less about writing a check and more about doing.

And that’s OK – as long as they are contributing one of the three Ws you should expect of your directors: wealth, work or wisdom.

When a director is really not providing any of the three, then maybe it’s time to go. Or, as another colleague of mine once put it, there are also three Gs: give, get or get off!

So how do you make sure that fresh blood you bring in doesn’t taint the whole supply? Here are five suggestions, based on my experience:

  1.  Vet the non-vet. Get all the information you can about a prospective new director, including references, the way you would if you were making a new hire. How do people like working with her? What are his strengths and especially his weaknesses?
  2. Take her/him for a test drive. Invite new directors to a meeting before bringing them onto the board. That gives both the candidate and current directors the opportunity to assess whether the fit is good.
  3. Great expectations. Make sure new directors understand clearly what’s expected of them – in terms of financial support, meeting attendance, committee participation and potential conflicts of interest.
  4. Get buy-in from the veterans. Pick a long-serving director to sponsor/mentor the newbie. Have that director introduce the newcomer to the board and show him/her the ropes.
  5. Make new friends, but don’t forget the old. Find a way of honoring and staying in touch with directors leaving board service. A plaque is nice, but an ongoing relationship is more likely to yield continued support.

With any luck, your board will be less like a final resting place and more like a finely tuned symphony orchestra: a medley of both fresh and seasoned talent that plays (and works) together harmoniously.


Mark J. Joffe is an NESC consultant and former chief executive of a Jewish nonprofit organization.


About National Executive Service Corps

National Executive Service Corps is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering nonprofits since 1977.
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