Founders Rule

Late first snow, Oshtemo Township. Photo 2 January 2012 by Richard Brewer

A thread that began on the LANDTRUST-L listserv early in December 2011 had an outlier, a late post, a couple of days ago.  I read it over this afternoon as the first good-sized snow of the winter was falling–9 inches but slowing down.

The thread had to do with term limits for land trust board members and the familiar points were covered–well covered as is generally the case for nuts-and-bolts land trust issues on this listserv.  The virtues of bringing in new blood as against losing capable veterans were compared. The difficuly of finding good new contributing members was mentioned as well as the need for a committee to profile desirable skills and locate candidates. Ways of retaining involvement of former board members that had been term-limited off were suggested.

Different land trusts handled things differently, but if there was a consensus, it was that term limits, despite bringing some problems that had to be dealt with, were a good thing.

It would be hard to disagree with such a moderate position. Term limits can have several good effects and only a few bad ones. And  a land trust that is a going concern in a market of reasonable size can almost always recruit competent new board members if the nominating committee is doing its job.

Something that has occurred to me after watching a lot of boards from chamber music to bird clubs is that only one class of board member is irreplaceable.  The irreplaceable class is the founders. I make this suggestion not in a spirit of contention but as a serious observation.

There are founders and founders.  Some people are founders because they’re a friend of one of the real founders or they’re an accountant or have a good permanent mailing address or have a friend at the local foundation.  All of these are good traits for board members. But the founders to me are the ones with the zeal.  They’re the ones with the vision of the organization’s role, the knowledge of the enterprise, the sense of rightness of the task, and the persistence to fill out the forms, rent the hall, and actually produce a new organization.

Some new board members develop some of these attributes. Some don’t, though they may do a lot of governance or a lot of cheer leading.

I would make an exception to a term limits rule to make it possible for any founder to serve on the board as long as and whenever he or she chose to. The point is to keep the founder traits and also to keep the the institutional history readily accessible.

Not everybody will agree.  In fact, one of the main motivations for term limits–soft-pedaled in the moderate discussions of the listserv–is to get rid of the old-timers with their baggage of stoutly held outmoded ideas of how things ought to be done.

Non-profit-board experts have identified two evolutionary trends.  Boards start out as a bunch of activists who know the subject. In the course of time they are replaced by policy-setter types with influence in the community.  And pari passu the work of the organization shifts from volunteers to paid staff.

These two trends are definite and immutable, as certain as the development of a sunburn from too much time at the beach.  In one article on non-profit board development I saw, the condition of having founders remaining past their pull-by date was referred to as Founders’ Syndrome, indicating the seriousness of the affliction.

My view is that, despite occasional bull-headness, cantankerousness, and failure to go with the flow, founders may bring features hard to find elsewhere.

Not an invitation for argument, just a rumination from a snowy afternoon.

Happy New Year to founders and non-founders alike.

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2 thoughts on “Founders Rule

  1. Dick Klade

    Seventeen years of observing board activities in another type of nonprofit, a homeowners association, support your views. People with positive visions of the future and the zeal to work toward them over the long haul are hard to replace, and probably should not be.

  2. Kim Traverse

    I believe that the two options- term limits or no term limits are always just an alternation between two things that don’t work. I wish there was some middle ground….

    To me, the expression “founder’s syndrome” is merely a pejorative used by those who have other goals….

    Founding an organization is inherently radical–there is nothing yet to conserve in the organization so no real way to be conservative. I would argue that once the organization has become one of professional staff and a board that supports that, every decision made by the organization has an underlying purpose of keeping that staff employed. Not a bad thing necessarily but requiring scrutiny with no one in any position to provide it.

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