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Trustee for Life

Jeff Wahlstrom is managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting, and the Board Chair of the Maine Health Access Foundation.

For the trustees of some foundations, board service can begin to feel like an open-ended "commitment" (with all the positive and negative connotations that word can carry) stretching endlessly towards the horizon. While the continuity provided by long-time board members certainly has value, I believe that planned turnover on a board offers tremendous benefits that far exceed whatever disruption may be caused by bringing on new board members and saying goodbye to others. 

As a trustee of the Maine Health Access Foundation (MeHAF), and as a governance consultant to nonprofit boards, I've seen firsthand the benefits that result from term limits.  The best boards-strategic boards-see recruitment as an opportunity to enhance their skill-sets and to bring on board members who have what it takes to help them meet the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. Rather than trying to fill board seats with people who look a lot like the people who just sat there, they ask themselves, "What are the skills and abilities we'll need around this table in three years, five years, or more?" and then they go out and get them. 

At MeHAF, board members can serve a maximum of three consecutive three year terms, allowing ample time for new board members to understand how the foundation works, fully appreciate its mission, and grasp the complex work involved in promoting access to health care for the underserved and uninsured in Maine.  Nine years is also long enough to ensure significant continuity while still offering opportunities to constantly refresh the board with new energy, talents, and skills.

Term limits can also be a tool to help achieve diversity within a board of trustees. While foundations are often accused of being anything but diverse, the turnover on MeHAF's 15-member board means we are always adding new and differing political perspectives, shifting the geographic representation, and constantly reshuffling the ethnic, gender, and racial mix.  That might be a bit threatening for some foundations, but for MeHAF it is essential if we are going to live-up to our commitment to serve all Maine people. 

With well-planned term limits and ongoing strategic recruitment of new board members for needed skills and experience, trustees can bring real energy to their years on the board, knowing that it is not a "life sentence."  At the same time, the foundation is constantly refreshed, gaining new perspectives and benefitting from the addition of skill-sets, knowledge and experience that support achievement of the mission.

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