Term-limiting your organization can be a gift to future you.

For just a great many mission-based organizations, there is some point in time at which it should have accomplished its mission. If it’s done that, then it should stop. And if it hasn’t accomplished its mission by then, it should still stop, because it’s apparently not able to get the job done.

The landscape is littered with zombie non-profits that exist to exist, doing work that is almost wholly unrelated to their original purpose, so that its employees may continue to be employed. Is your goal to build promote the building of roads suitable for automobiles? Cool, do that, and stop once you’ve accomplished that. Otherwise, a century later, you’ll just be a sad, sprawling towing insurance company that could be easily replaced by an app. A review of the non-profits supported by any local community foundation will yield vast numbers of organizations that long ago ceased to be useful, as those community foundations know, but a board member golfs with the board chair of that non-profit, and, hey, they employ people…so.

Three years ago, when a few of us were planning U.S. Open Data, then-US-Deputy-CTO Nick Sinai made a suggestion premised on this notion. He said I should plan to shut down the organization after a few years. At first, the proposal struck me as bizarre. Wouldn’t it make more sense to build something lasting? When you’re trying to foster a movement, doesn’t a time limit hinder that goal? The answer, as it turned out, was a very clear no.

Having a clear, public drop-dead date (which we set at four years) for U.S. Open Data has been a gift. It’s informed my work on a daily, even hourly, basis.

The organization was created to further the cause of open data—that is, to advance something larger than any one organization, that will outlast any one organization. Trying to do that with U.S. Open Data on a permanent basis (whatever that means) would mean working to make U.S. Open Data to be important enough that funders would want to support it, and creating a permanent fundraising infrastructure. And in building the larger network infrastructure of open data, our incentive would be to place ourselves at the center of that network, so that we’d be too important to go away.  When people approached us about creating new businesses or organizations in this space, our incentive would be to discourage them, to reduce competition. So we see that the best interests of a single actor don’t necessarily overlap with the best interests of a cause.

This organizational term limit informed every major decision that we made, most every minor decision, and a great many trivial ones. With an overall incentive to build up the open data ecosystem, instead of building up ourselves, we’ve been forced to consider the decisions before us not in terms of “what is best for us?” but instead in terms of “what is best for open data?” This approach clarifies every decision, forcing the morally superior decision. And the most reliable way to make morally superior decisions is to make sure that’s in your best interest.

Like Odysseus lashing himself to his ship’s mast, we declared our time limit publicly, at the outset, to ensure that we’d be held to it. Am I good enough person to shut down an organization just to keep it from potentially losing its way in years to come? Maybe. Best not to test it.

To anybody looking to start a mission-based non-profit, especially one with a goal-based mission (“build a monument”) as opposed to an unlimited mission (“support the arts”), I heartily recommend establishing a publicly-promoted end date.

Making it work requires 1) setting a date certain instead of something vague 2) having a board that is committed to making you adhere to that date and 3) reminding people early and often of your term limit. These three things will ensure that you’ll be held to your own standards, and that nobody will be caught by surprise when your organization goes away.

As a benefit, this creates a sort of sustainability in funding that’s appealing to the right funders. When your organization’s goal isn’t existence in perpetuity, funding it no longer becomes an exercise in long-term strategy. Depending on the organization’s time limit, it might be possible to fund its entire existence in a single grant. (We had two general funding grants: one from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and one from the Shuttleworth Foundation.)

Ultimately, every grant-funded organization will eventually be terminated by an inability to obtain additional funding, at the point at which they either have accomplished their mission (and funders see no reason to continue to support them) or they have failed to accomplish their mission (and, again, funders see no reason to continue to support them). In short, you can decide to term-limit your own organization, or you can wait for funders to do that for you, at time of their choosing.

Term limits aren’t right for all mission-based organizations, but many of them should regard the use of term limits as their null hypothesis. It may be harder to reject than you suspect.

2 thoughts on “Term-limiting your organization can be a gift to future you.”

  1. Interesting idea!

    One concern I had was for what happens to any websites after the organization’s sundown. Do they just disappear, leading to link rot? Or do any digital artifacts worth keeping (including newsletters of the organization — things of archaeological interest) get published in the first place on some other site?

  2. I intend to persist the sites indefinitely, with indications that they have been archived and are no longer maintained. Most of them are static, generated via Jekyll, making them trivially cheap to host—just the cost of a domain name. Everything is on GitHub, so that even if the sites were to go away, anybody else is free to stand up their own copy, or at least explore what was once there. There are no newsletters or anything like that, just tweets. :) So I think everything will persist?

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