Is It Big Enough?

nonprofit board meeting room

Is It Big Enough?

This is the most frequent question talked about in boardrooms and bedrooms across America.  My area of expertise is limited to the size of boards, so I’ll spare you my other opinions.

The board size question keeps coming up in my discussions with a range of organizations.  Many are struggling to find a board size that feels comfortable and allows them to achieve their goals. Some boards are bound to a size dictated by their by-laws written decades ago, when board member expectations were minimal and talent was easy to recruit.  Others are frustrated by their board’s lack of engagement as they add more members to a long roster of impressive names, believing that they will raise a lot more money with every board member added.  In many cases, a larger board does not always result in greater fundraising.  In fact, their impact diminishes as boards grow and disengagement increases.  I’ve seen relatively small but committed boards outperform larger boards in terms of fundraising.  In those situations, the critical success factors are leadership and engagement, not board size.

My answer to the initial question about board size is, “It depends.” When you start to think about the right size for your board, there is no magic number.  It really depends on the external environment and your internal goals.  Some of it comes from trial and error.  Many times the size needs to change over time given the priorities at hand.  Another way to frame the issue is to benchmark highly effective organizations with similar profiles and analyze the size and composition of their boards.   In any case, committee design should drive how you determine the minimum number of board members you will need to have fully functioning committees.

At any size, boards should be conscious of committee creep, where every major initiative or staff function is assigned to a committee.  Committee design should be based upon the strategic plan rather than on static by-laws or the staff’s organizational structure.  There’s rarely a need to have more than 3 to 4 standing committees for any size board.  I encourage boards to organize a task force or event committee for special projects, events or time-limited goals.  The only committees that should duplicate a staff function are fundraising and finance, and even then they should be focused on strategic matters rather than operations.

How big is too big?  According to a BoardSource survey, the average board size is 15.3 members, down from 19 in 1994. More boards recognize that a smaller, engaged board has the potential to get more work done if they are extremely committed to the mission. A larger board has the advantage of allowing for more diversity.  Many times that’s the secret sauce that helps create a high performing board.

The ultimate answera board should be big enough to get the work of the board done based upon the strategic priorities, but small enough so that board members feel engaged, share their talents and skills, and effectively collaborate to successfully achieve the strategic objectives of the organization.  Using these criteria, less than seven is too small and more than forty is too big– no matter what the size of the organization.

In the end, board size is so important that it deserves thoughtful discussion, ongoing adjustment and a focus on mission and strategic alignment.  Much like a custom tailored suit, the board size will be a unique fit–one that is patterned around the organization’s goals, stage of growth and culture.

Is your board too big?  Maybe.  To get your board thinking about the right size, here is a checklist to get the discussion started.

Rena Henderson Mason
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