Posted by Michael H. Abernathy, CPA
Of the many decisions that a nonprofit organization needs to make, setting standards for board-member size may not be at the top of the priority list; yet this decision is critical for the health and competence of the entire organization.
Bylaws specifying an ideal range for board size, rather than establishing a fixed number of seats, may afford the organization more flexibility and leeway. When this structure is combined with staggered board terms, the organization retains a level of fluidity and the ability to adjust the board size as needed without having to re-write the bylaws.
Differing board sizes come with both benefits and hindrances – but generally, studies have indicated that group-decision making is most effective when the group size is between five and eight people.
An organization should consider its size, committee structure, fundraising needs, and board member responsibilities in conjunction with the relationships noted below to determine the most appropriate board size. The complexity of current issues facing the board should also be weighed into the decision.
|Increased cohesiveness||Decreased cohesiveness|
|Ease of communication and scheduling||Difficulty of communication and scheduling|
|More focused and concise meetings||Less focused and concise meetings|
|Fosters high member utilization, engagement, and satisfaction||Fosters low member utilization, disengagement, and dissatisfaction|
|Greater collective experience, expertise, and diversity of opinion||Less collective experience, expertise, and diversity of opinion|
|Smaller external network||Larger external network|
|More strain on each member; increased likelihood of burnout||Less strain on each member; decreased likelihood of burnout|
After considering all the points above, an organization should carefully examine its own situation and determine an appropriate board size. Then, before settling on a final number, the organization should ask itself the following two final questions:
- Have we designed a board that can carry out all functions, including committee work, without overburdening the individual volunteer board members?
- Have we designed a board that will allow all board members to stay personally involved and interested in the activities of the board?
If the organization can answer “yes” to both questions, it has most likely arrived at the right number.
If you have questions regarding your organization’s board size, contact your trusted professional or a member of our nonprofit team.