The Curious Case of the Past President
By Frank Johnston with contributions from Judy Hansen and Bill Brandon
Past presidents are like the older single uncle or aunt. Everyone seems to have one and yet we’re not sure exactly what their purpose might be. In some families, they can be a vital part of the family, bringing a calming influence to an overly adventurous teen or support for a struggling young parent. And then there are the troublesome ones, the ones that we feel we have to invite to holiday dinners because, well, that’s just what families should do.
You’ve been a great President, but….
Nonprofit boards often consider adding the position of past president when they review their bylaws. The case for past presidents is made when board members think about that good president they had and how much she did for them. “If we had a past president position in place” they say, “We could have kept her involved”. In other words, maybe she would keep working for us. And besides, it would be a way to honour her for her contribution and bring a measure of recognition to our organization.
For that good president, the role of past president can be appealing: after working hard for a year or two to advance the organization, it’s a way to stay connected to a cause you care about and to do so at an easier pace. It can also be a chance to mentor the incoming president, which can be a deeply rewarding experience for both people in the relationship. One other benefit of having a past president around is that they could take on a special assignment that requires the connections and breadth of knowledge that a capable board president would have. For example, the organization may need someone who can bring an ambassadorial touch in the negotiations of a sensitive partnership agreement.
But like the disruptive uncles, there are some presidents that, candidly, the rest of the board can’t wait to see leave. The idea of him being around for another year--or two--as past president can be enough to cause a spike in board member resignations. Why? Apart from personality clashes, some past presidents are stuck in the past and can frustrate efforts to implement strategic changes. The blocking may be as straightforward as the past president being offended that the board would change a policy that he had personally championed even though its time has passed. And rather than being a mentor, the past president that can’t let go of his previous role can crowd the new president’s style and stymie her development as the chair of Board.
Having a past president position poses logistical problems too. What if the past president only wants to serve for one more year, but the current president holds his position for two years? Who fills the position in year two? Should the past president be an officer of the board, or is it simply an honourary position? Do they get to vote if it’s an ex-officio position? What if the past president has moved to another city or is simply not available for personal reasons? Do you invite the past-past president to hold the position?
Decide what your Board needs
Little guidance appears to be available to help a board decide whether it needs a past president. For example, the Muttart Foundation’s otherwise excellent guide on board roles contains few principles that can guide a board on the matter. John Carver stakes out one view when he says that a board should have as few officers as is legally permitted. Otherwise, to add to the list of officers is to unnecessarily diffuse the authority of the board. Which leads to the following questions a board should ask itself before it creates, or continues, the position of past president:
1. What functions will a past president be responsible for that cannot be handled by another member of the board or another volunteer?
The reasons for having a past president—mentor, reputation, leader of sensitive projects—are all roles that can be filled by other board members, or in the case of a mentor for the incoming president, by an external volunteer or, in fact, a leadership coach could be retained.
2. But our current president has a lot of knowledge and skills that we don’t want to lose. If we don’t appoint her to the position of past president, how do we encourage her to stay with the organization?
Agreed! Organizational memory can be an important ingredient to success. Have a heart to heart discussion with her before her term is up. She may simply be done; putting her in a position that she doesn’t have the heart for does her and the organization a disservice. If you don’t know already, find out what she is passionate about and how she wants to contribute. She may want to continue on the board as a regular member; or chair a special committee that has access to the board and CEO; or simply play a quieter role as an occasional advisor and networker.
3. Then how do we honour our current president when her term ends?
There are lots of ways to recognize people for their distinguished service: set up a donation program in honour of the outgoing president; host a thank you reception; create an award; etc. If the situation fits, bylaws can be amended so you can appoint honourary members to the Board. The past president position can be an honourary position so that the Board could choose to appoint a person for exemplary service, but not be obligated to fill the position. In doing so, the board should consider what rights and responsibilities an honourary member would have.
4. Eliminating the past president position is a non-starter for our Board. How can we avoid the downsides of this position?
Be clear in your bylaws that the past president is an ex-officio position which the Board fills by making an annual appointment. If the person continues to bring value, the appointment can be renewed. The bylaws can also be clear that if the immediate past president is not available, then the position remains vacant. This provision will avoid the problem of filling the position with a person who was last associated with your organization a long time ago and could be out of touch with current circumstances.
Families are not Boards
It sounds obvious, but we don’t always act in ways that show that we know the difference. Except in dire circumstances, families find ways to manage troublesome uncles or aunts. By contrast, Boards need to behave in the best interests of the organization and not out of a personal concern for or association with the prospective past-president. Decide whether it’s in the best interests of your organization to have a past-president and then put the appropriate mechanisms into place and stick to them. If a past-president is not needed, then make the business decision to remove the position.
Contact us: We’d love to hear from you and to learn about your experiences and comments on this article.
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