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By Jan Masaoka - Board Café

 

At our upcoming board and senior staff retreat we will be discussing what size our board should be to be most effective. Help!!

You've hit upon the single most common question asked of experts on nonprofit boards: What's the right number of people to have on the board?

We're tempted to answer: "17. That's the average board size in the United States so it must be right."

Actually, the real answer is "It depends."

(Note: this answer -- "It depends" -- is the answer to almost every question in life. Keep it in mind for essay tests, police questioning, and marriage proposals.)

But what does the right board size depend on? Here are some real-life answers:

1. The amazing shrinking board. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that a smaller board is necessarily a more active board. If you have 11 board members and 2 are inactive, and then go to a board of 9, it's likely that within six months you will have 7 active and 2 inactive board members. This happens for the same reason that buttered toast always falls with the buttered side down. It just is.

 

2. Bigger may not necessarily be better. When a board has a giving requirement, some executive directors do the math and figure out that with 50 people on the board @ $1,000 each they can get $50,000. But more board members require more staff support. If you have 30 board members and 10 committees, you probably need at least one full-time, very capable staffperson who can support those committees. Large institutional organizations where board members are mostly involved with fundraising (think of the ballet) often have four or five full-time staff dedicated to board support.

In particular, a very large board places a large burden on the executive director, who is pressed to develop relationships with so many board members or to get them all to where they can be meaningful leaders.

3. Don't go committee crazy. If every board member is on three or four committees (and going crazy), don't add more  board members. Instead, reduce the number of committees. Turn most of the committees into temporary task forces that, for instance, meet for two months to accomplish something specific and then disband. (See: Boards Should Only Have Three Committees for more ideas.)

4. April in Paris (or Peoria for that matter) is lovely, but can be pricey. Cost is a factor if you have a national, international, or regional board, assuming that at least a few will need help with travel expenses for face-to-face meetings.

5. Find your core. When a board gets beyond 12 or so members, a "core group" of 7 - 9 people naturally forms. As a result, there will be some board members who are not part of the core group. The same also happens on large boards, such as those with 60 or more members; there is typically a core group of 9 people who are the "real board" (often with the title executive committee of the board) and everyone else is more of a fundraising or advisory volunteer (and nobody really wants to volunteer as an ATM or a rubber stamp).

 

6. Don't make it an (odd) numbers game. Don't believe the myth that you need to have an odd number. If a vote is 50/50 you should probably talk about it more until you can get to something like 75/25.

7. Too small can be unhealthy. Although small boards (such as three or four) are in fashion right now, they often don't have the critical mass to sustain healthy debate. Small boards are often championed by strong executives who see board members as advisors rather than as "owners" of the organization who are there to hold it accountable to its constituency.

8. Every board member needs to have a seat at the table . . . literally. For most organizations, you don't want to have a board that is too large to meet at your site. It's important for most meetings to be "on location" to set an authentic and tangible context for decisions.

9. Some of the best committee members may not be board members. Don't forget that non-board volunteers can participate on committees and task forces. For example, a board-staff task force (also known as a temporary committee) to evaluate a proposal for a new earned-income activity may well benefit from friends of the organization who are not on the board.

Most community-based organizations (with staff) do well with boards of 7 - 18. The boards with 18 will probably have two inactive board members; if that's your case don't sweat it and focus on the 16 active board members you do have. (If it gets to 3 inactive board members, though, you'll have to get rid of one of them because three lumps on the log are demoralizing.) And don't forget that with larger boards there will be greater demand on staff time to support board participation.

Special thanks to Mike Allison, Marla Cornelius (CompassPoint Nonprofit Services), Judy Hatcher, and Maureen Robinson for critique and additions to this article.

This article is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, a practical and readable online magazine for nonprofits. Subscribe free by contacting the Blue Avocado editor or visiting www.blueavocado.org