What's the Right Size for the Board?

Dear Blue Avocado: We have 18 board members, but we are wondering if we should try to keep such a large board.

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

By the way, we share credit with you for our great success in recruiting six new dynamic board members using your "Blue Ribbon Committee" method outlined at a session you led at a California Wellness conference a couple of years ago. Thank you! Signed, Nina Dooley, LINC Housing, Long Beach, California

Dear Nina and LINC Housing: 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.

A Blue Avocado reader who is such a staffperson has generously shared her job description as "Board Coordinator" . . . click here to see it.

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.

The net net

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.

See also:

Jan Masaoka is editor-in-chief of Blue Avocado, and the author of Best of the Board Cafe: Hands-On Solutions for Nonprofit Boards, now in an expanded Second Edition. She is also the CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits.

Comments (8)

  • Anonymous

    Abdi: You are doing a great job. Thought you might like to have this article. Mason

    Apr 17, 2012
  • Anonymous

    This is a good piece. I remain puzzled by the presence of boards that are thirty, forty or even fifty people. Given the need for a board to engage in deep conversations about risk management, strategy and internal controls (just a few examples), boards that size are just disasters in waiting.

    Apr 18, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the article on one of the most frequently asked questions -- "What's the ideal size of a Board?" I respond to that question, that it depends on the philosophy that the Board uses to staff itself -- whether that philosophy is explicit or not. A Board can staff itself: 1. Functionally -- in which case, it adds members who have skills to address current strategic issues, so the number of Board members depends on the range and complexity of strategic goals. 2. Representationally -- in which case, the number of members depends on the number of stakeholders to represent on the Board. 3. Diversification -- in which case, the members represent the different types of stakeholders/ethnic/racial groups. 4. Passion -- in which case, the members on the Board are those that show passion for the mission (which tends to only make for passionate meetings :-) Each of the above four approaches might suggest a different number of Board members. Unless the Board selects a philosophy, then it ends up deciding the number of Board members by sometimes vague guidelines like, "Don't have too many" or "Try keep it reasonable."

    Apr 18, 2012
  • Very thoughtful and timely. We are discussing that very issue in our organization now. We have chosen to bring in very strong, but non-voting "Advisors" to populate our committees. This allows both the advisors and our organization time to get to know each other and see how we fit together in meeting our mission before moving on to the Board of Directors (or not). We are extremely pleased with the results so far! Rochelle Mills, Irvine Housing Opportunities, Inc.

    Apr 18, 2012
  • I want to echo the notion that "too small can be unhealthy." There is, in fact, evidence to support this. NCRP found, for example, that foundations with small boards were more likely to fall victim to Bernie Madoff because there wasn't enough critical debate on the board (http://ncrp.org/files/learning_from_madoff.pdf). Many sector organizations, including NCRP and Independent Sector, recommend a minimum of 5 board members. --Aaron Dorfman

    Apr 23, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Bigger may not necessarily be better --- this is very true in every organization. Should one cease to do his/her duties in the board, the number of working members is decreased.

    May 06, 2012
  • Anonymous

    All great advice, but you are so funny! I just love that and read your articles because you GET IT! You totally understand our challenges. And you make it fun to read and consider the reality of life as a nonprofit ED.

    Jun 11, 2013
  • Thank you, Anonymous! Jan

    Mar 08, 2014

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