Finishing well – having a board member exit strategy

Updated: Sep 30



As Not for Profit consultants we have had the opportunity to be involved in a volunteer capacity to serve as a director on a number of school and other boards.  And more importantly, we have had the opportunity to retire from a number of these boards too.


This, we are aware, goes against the trend in our sector. It is not uncommon for Board members of Not for Profits to serve for more than 10 or even 20 years with the same organisation.  In fact, the baby boomer generation has been accused of hanging on to leadership of our Not for Profits for far too long, a consequence of which is a leadership vacuum in the generation below them.  As more and more boomers retire, there are smaller and smaller boards and the hunt for quality board members to replace retiring members gets harder.  In a recent survey of over 1,000 Business Managers run by The Bursars Forum, 34 per cent of respondents listed finding quality board members as a top ten issue in schools today!

In our experience as consultants, we have found three main reasons men and women are motivated to join a board.  These are:

  1. To fulfill a personal need – this is the least desired reason for appointing a person to your board.  The desire to feed personal ego or attain status, or the desire to have an influence in one area of life because other areas of life (such as work or home) do not offer a lot of satisfaction are not good motivations for pursuing a board role;

  2. Involvement in the organisation as a beneficiary or moral owner – this personal involvement (eg. parent of a child in a school, member of a sporting club) is often the reason many people join a board.  We recommend that all board members are elected/appointed from the moral owner, rather than being elected/appointed directly from outside of the organisation or from within the beneficiaries in accordance with best practice governance principles.  Many people in board roles are serving out of a sense of duty, rather than holding the role passionately and proactively.  This can lead to the board itself becoming passive or disengaged and the executive not feeling supported.  Sometimes board members are elected or re elected continuously because nobody else wants the job, and they feel a need to “step up” and continue to serve in this capacity;

  3. An active desire to serve – this is the preferred primary motivator for a board member – a more deliberate desire to serve the board and organisation in the role.

In order to find board members with an active desire to serve, there needs to be a clear understanding and stating of the boards role in the organisation.  This means that the board needs to be doing its job, collaboratively with the CEO, in owning and communicating a compelling vision for the organisation, and seeking to find people to get on board with the organisational vision and help this to be realised.

Over time however all board’s get stale if they are not refreshed via fresh vision and/or fresh membership.  If individual board members still have lots to contribute and don’t feel that they are past their use by date on boards, why should they retire?  I believe that for long-term healthy governance, a board will have in place a mechanism for all directors to be re-elected or re-appointed to the board, for maximum terms to be in place to ensure that boards are being refreshed, and board members are helped to resist the urge to stay on boards for too long.  Having fixed tenures also helps a board become motivated to connect with their membership of moral owners in order to develop a healthy pool of potential new directors over time.  It also helps to motivate a board to think in terms of cycles.  Cycles both in terms of strategic planning and re examining vision (every three to five years), and cycles related to reinvigorating and focusing the board in light of these changes in direction over time.  Having a healthy turnover of directors also helps avoid stagnation, ‘group think’, narrow or fixed view thinking and complacency, and reduces the risk of boards being dominated by one or a small number of individuals.

So why do board members stay on boards for so long? Well – for a start, the collegiality and social contact at meetings, a feeling of satisfaction that might not be being met In other areas of life, and status in the community can all be attractive yet not good reasons for the individual to want to stay as mentioned previously in reasons not to join a board. Then there is the reality that there aren’t a lot of people knocking on the doors trying to join our boards – the general apathy in the wider community about governance can also contribute to a longer than ideal tenure for board members.

A healthy board will have a good mix of directors in terms of tenure, expertise, age, gender etc.  For this reason it is also important to have a Board member skills matrix (for want of a better title) that each board keeps up to date and can refer to at least annually as they appraise the performance of the board and future governance needs.  This matrix lists all board members across the columns of a table, and down the rows of the tables are the various skill sets required and characteristics of your desired board members, along with other demographic information such as gender, age, and religious or cultural background (if relevant in the case of faith based organisations).  With deliberate attention paid to the make up and skill set of your board, you are more likely to be able to future proof the governance of your organisation by taking account of the changing needs over time.  In the early years of a school’s growth, for example, it is more important to have architects and people experienced with building programs involved on the board – in later years in a mature school these needs may change or lessen.

I would like to issue a challenge to every board to develop policy in the areas of board tenure and sourcing of new directors, and to every director to set a realistic end date for your own tenure that balances the opportunity to make an ongoing contribution with the desire for fresh ideas and opportunity being given to others. The board should spend time looking for potential directors – talented individuals in your moral owner community who can be involved at a committee level as a prelude to possible future board involvement.

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