For Many Nonprofit Boards, Smaller is Better

At a recent large gathering of nonprofit leaders, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman drew a gasp from the crowd.  Linda Crompton, executive director of BoardSource, had just asked him what he considered the ideal size for a board of directors. His answer surprised Crompton and the crowd: any board larger than six people is suspect.

But there were also nods of approval. Many boards are bucking conventional wisdom that a board should have twelve to twenty-four members. They are discovering the benefits that working with a small group brings. Governance thought-leaders like Dan Hotchkiss of The Alban Institute and John Carver have promoted smaller boards as ideal for a wide array of nonprofits.

Better Quality Directors

Some nonprofits have large boards because having twelve, sixteen, or even twenty-four directors was the norm a generation ago.  These numbers divided up nicely to make traditional committees for finance, program, fundraising, and nominations, with enough people to spread the work around. These boards tend to let structure drive process, often struggling to find people to fill the classes that come open every year.

Electing one or two new directors annually allows a board to bring in only those people who feel strongly about the intended results of the organization and have the time, resources, and motivation to make it happen. (LinkedIn offers BoardConnect, a free service to help boards leverage the networks of its members in identifying people who want to serve on boards like yours.)

Better Quality Participation

Even when a large board succeeds in filling its roster, it may have trouble filling the seats. Difficulties scheduling board meetings and having full attendance increase rapidly with each additional board member. Add cross-country travel for boards with members living outside the same region and things really get interesting. Online apps like Doodle.com can help, but boards with more than twelve members seldom have full attendance at every meeting. During a meeting, having a large group present allows some members to remain quiet or overlooked. Good ideas may be passed over, and objections—or more importantly, hesitations—may not be recognized. In his book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss points out that “Large boards, as a rule, tend to be more passive and less able to engage the staff as strong partners. Attendance becomes less consistent, a tendency that makes it difficult for the board to sustain a train of thought.”

Better Quality Decision Making

Numerous studies show that the optimal size for problem solving teams is about six people.  After there are seven people in a decision-making group, each additional member reduces decision effectiveness by 10%, according to Marcia W. Blenko, Michael C. Mankins, and Paul Rogers, authors of Decide and Deliver: Five Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization. (And what is a board of directors if not a decision-making group?) While best practices encourage nonprofit boards to have ad hoc committees study complex issues and bring options to the full board for action, the full board still makes the decision. The idea that a larger board creates broader buy-in is often illusory. A large board may provide political or social cover, but it will probably not make better decisions than a smaller board.

Here’s an idea: If you have not already done so, change your by-laws to allow for a range of board size rather than a single number of directors. Stating that “the board shall have no fewer than six and no more than nine directors” provides the board with flexibility in meeting its needs for good governance.

10-Minute Board Discussion

What would a board of 6-9 people make possible for our organization?

 

Image courtesy of iStockphoto.com/Lisa-Blue

Disclosure of Material Connection: I am a BoardSource® Certified Governance Trainer as an independent contractor. I receive no compensation from BoardSource for mentioning its brand or services in my posts. I do not receive a commission on any items you may purchase from BoardSource through links on this blog. You should know that I only recommend products or services that I use and that I believe will benefit my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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