Q: I am one of three board members of a human services agency. A consultant told us that most boards should consist of at least 10 – 15 members, though in our state, we are only required to have the three we have. We also have a paid staff of 19 and one of the other board members is pushing back, commenting that it doesn’t make sense to have a board of directors that is almost as large as the staff. We want to know if there is a formula to compute the correct number of board members for our organization.

 

A: This is one of those perennial questions. There is no magic formula for computing the size of the board, nor is there any “right number.” While I will give you some questions for thinking through how large or small your board should be, I want to begin by assuring you that there is no need to be concerned about the ratio of board to staff.

If you think about it, organizations typically open their doors with no staff – at least not paid staff! The board does everything. Only as funds begin to steadily flow in is the board able to begin hiring people to do the work of that organization. Even then, it generally takes awhile for the size of the staff to grow beyond the size of the board. In many cases that never happens. Yet those organizations can still run smoothly. The key is keeping in mind that the jobs of board and staff are different. Staff is responsible for the day-to-day operations of your agency and the board for making the big-picture decisions that ensure it is actually creating the future you envision for the communities you serve. My guess is that your concerned board member has had experience with boards that insist on having a say in the look of the new brochure or the brand of copier to be leased. Such disregard for the boundaries of its own job and that of staff can happen just as easily with a board of three as a board of 25. So, if a larger board will benefit your agency in other ways, I would not fear experimenting with a larger board.

Is a larger board right for you? Let’s talk about what you were told about the size of boards and what you should consider before coming to any conclusions. Every state defines the minimum number of board members for any corporation, including nonprofit corporations. In most states that number is three. I’ve known boards with three members and boards with close to 200. In my experience, regardless of the organization, three are too few and 200 are way too many. What you need is a group that is small enough for every board member to play a significant role, yet large enough that you can get the work of the board done. Certainly, the smaller the group, the better able everyone is to really delve into issues and the less likely that anyone will be able to shirk his/her responsibility. However, the larger the group, the more diversity of ideas and the better reach you have into the community. Both conditions are very valuable. Perhaps that speaks to why, according the BoardSource’s Nonprofit Governance Index 2007 (new statistics are due out in November 2010), the average size of boards in the US is 16 and organizations claim that the “sweet spot” is 15 – 22. In my own work, I have found boards of 9 – 15 to be increasingly considered optimum. But I know of numerous organizations that feel strongly that they need 25 – 35 in order to accomplish their goals.

In deciding the number that is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What talents do we require given the goals the board has committed to accomplishing over the next few years?
  • To what degree will our organization benefit from diversity on our board? (Note: I prefer to define diversity broadly – e.g., age, gender, geographic location, range of ability/disability, socio-economic level, learning style and religion, as well as race and ethnicity.)
  • To what degree do we require “reach” into the community – the ability to tap different circles of influence for fund raising and/or advocacy purposes?
  • Will the proposed number give us the needed range of talent, diversity and reach?
  • Will we be able to do the work of the board with the number we are considering, without creating burnout?
  • Do we want/need an executive committee? (The trend is to move away from executive committees because they tend to disenfranchise the full board. However, larger boards can be more difficult to convene in times of emergency and may necessitate having an executive committee.)
  • What are the pros of a board of “X” size? What are the cons?
  • Why do we believe this is the right number for us?
  • Would a board of a different size be seen as advantageous or detrimental in the greater community? Why?

I suggest that when you ultimately set the size of your board you consider setting it as a range rather than a set number. This will allow you to leave some seats open if you cannot find the “right” people to fill them all at the time of nomination. In addition, if you have an open slot it gives you the ability to jump on someone if you come across the “right” person before current board members’ terms expire.

As I said at the beginning, there is no one size that is right or wrong/good or bad. If you make a change, give it a fair shot and find it doesn’t work for you, you can always rethink your numbers. Just don’t forget to make the corresponding change in your bylaws!