By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial
One of the most frequently asked questions about nonprofit organizations is “what is the ideal number of board members?” Unfortunately, there is no magic number, so the best answer to this question is, “it depends.” Most organizational bylaws provide a range for the required number of board members. Sometimes it makes sense to operate near the upper range of this requirement; sometimes it’s better to have a board that is closer to the lower end of the range. Each approach has its benefits and challenges.
Larger boards have more people to carry out board activities like fundraising and marketing. Organizations that have a lot of events or that are undertaking a capital campaign may find that a large board makes it easier to divide up activities into manageable tasks while not overburdening anyone. Larger boards can have a more active committee structure without requiring members to serve on multiple committees.
A large board also provides the opportunity to have more diverse and different perspectives represented among members. This can be an advantage in decision-making and discussions. A larger board may also provide more connections throughout the community, which can be beneficial for marketing, advocacy, programming and fundraising.
Large boards can prove unwieldy, however. They require additional staff and time to support and manage member activities and engagement. It may take members longer to learn to work with one another, which may slow activities and chill in-depth discussions. Some board members may lose a sense of connection and individual accountability for tasks when there are so many others to pick up the slack. In a larger group, there may also be a greater tendency for cliques to form, or for the executive committee to take a much more directive role.
Small boards can feel more nimble and flexible when it comes to meeting times, as well as meeting processes. It is easier to have participatory discussions with a smaller group. Members may feel a greater sense of responsibility for decision-making and participation when serving on a smaller board because it’s more noticeable when someone is not engaging in discussion or an activity. It’s also more likely that members of a smaller group will develop strong connections with one another. This group cohesiveness can be an advantage in decision-making and other activities.
There are also some challenges when it comes to small boards. Although they can provide the opportunity for everyone’s voice to be heard, the board itself may be omitting important perspectives or points of view. This affects discussions and decisions, as well as the reach and influence that the organization has in its community. It may also be easier for a strong leader to exert undue influence on a smaller group of people, which further limits diversity of opinions and discussion. A small board requires greater participation from each of its members, which may lead to member dissatisfaction and burnout.
Perspectives on board size
Often, the conversation about board size arises when there are problems with member engagement. The board may be having difficulties with meeting attendance or participation on tasks, and changing the size of the board is introduced as a solution. While a smaller board might encourage members to feel a greater sense of responsibility, and a larger board might provide the opportunity to divide up the tasks into more manageable activities, changing board size to address engagement problems isn’t always the right answer.
Lack of attendance or follow-through may call for stronger board management and leadership. Problems may require difficult conversations with individual members that, while challenging, will enable the board to get back on track. Concerns about member workload may be more easily addressed through the organization’s committee structure and recruitment of committee volunteers for events and activities. Being clear about what the problems are and exploring a range of solutions may enable the organization to avoid significant board structure changes to address relatively small problems.
Adjusting the board’s size isn’t a panacea. It’s important to have a clear understanding of what the organization is trying accomplish when changing the size of its board. Only the board can decide what makes the most sense for the organization.
Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit www.baileyleadershipinitiative.com.