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How to Refresh a Stagnant Board

by Mike Smith • January 9, 2020

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I have the privilege of serving on eight nonprofit boards, and they all have their strengths—and, of course, some weaknesses. In this article, I’m going to describe one option for setting up a board that isn’t always popular. In fact, I have to admit that when I was involved in drafting the articles of incorporation for one of the other boards I serve on (not HSLDA), I did not choose this option, out of selfish reasons. You’ll see why when I describe it.

However, I’ve seen this option play out in practice, and it has a lot to recommend it. It could be especially beneficial for homeschool organizations that are struggling to maintain involved, effective boards.

One of the boards I serve on is for my local Gideons International camp. Many people are familiar with the Gideons as the organization that places Bibles in hotel rooms. It’s a membership association of Christian business and professional men and wives with one sole purpose, or “why”: to bring the lost to Christ. (The most important decision we make for our organizations is their why. That purpose comes from the gut—it has emotion behind it. You can read my previous leadership articles for a refresher on determining your group’s purpose: “Why Start with Why?” and “How to Start with Why.”)

While the Gideons International board is responsible for overall administration, the major work of the organization is carried out by volunteers in local “camps” (equivalent to clubs in other organizations). In the state of Virginia, where I live, we have 100 camps. The camps are administered by volunteer members following a set of uniform camp guidelines.

Now we get to the nitty-gritty. Each camp has an executive board with five elected officers and five members who are chosen by the elected officers to serve as heads of specific programs.

The number of board members or officers isn’t what matters here. It’s how each camp arrives at the leadership team and keeps it fresh that sets up the organization for success.

Camp members elect their officers annually. In my opinion, this works because camps normally have no more than 50 members, with about half of them active. For homeschool organizations, I think a self-perpetuating board is generally preferable. Statewide homeschool organizations that try to have their membership elect officers at an annual meeting will have difficulty getting a quorum, and there can be chaos if some members choose to be disruptive, destructive, or divisive.

Stave off stagnation with term limits

Now here’s the key rule for Gideon camps that can be difficult to swallow, but highly effective in maintaining an active, participating board: the five elected officers can only serve three consecutive one-year terms. (They can be elected to new positions, and there are no term limits for the program leaders who are chosen by the elected officers.)

This gives opportunity for new ideas in leadership, especially in the chairman or president position.

I get it—there are people in leadership who are highly effective and committed, and it seems like a bad idea to have them leave their positions. But, if we’re honest, we know that there also people who should step down. Term limits can head off the possibility of hurtful and divisive confrontations. In some cases, removing entrenched officers can actually save an organization.

I know it’s scary. I’m already hearing you now: “But, Mike, you don’t know how hard it is to get people to serve.” True—but if the organization is serving and meeting the needs of others, God will provide.

I also realize that there are great leaders who do not need to be rotated out. But if you’re following the same board model that the Gideons use, leaders who reach their term limits can continue on the board in a different officer position or by leading a program.

By the way, there is no requirement that program leaders or committee chairs serve on your board, but it is always a good idea to have some board members who are not officers, and these people are natural choices. Plus, if they are attending board meetings, it provides a better opportunity to monitor delegated responsibilities and the progression or maintenance of the mission.

Keep in mind that if your organization decides to try this approach, the current board will need to sign on, as this change will in all likelihood require an amendment to your articles of incorporation or bylaws.

Have I piqued your interest? In the end, you may decide that it’s not in your organization’s best interest to make this change. On the other hand, it could be just the shot in the arm that your group needs.