I get asked that question pretty often – What’s the right board size? The answer is – it depends. What are your goals? Do you currently have a composition that makes sense?
You may have seen studies that will tell you the average nonprofit board size is around 17. So what? That includes hospitals, universities, small organizations with no staff, school boards, chambers, little league, and so many more that can’t be compared to you.
So let’s customize your magic number. If you don’t have clear goals for the next few years it will be tougher to do this little exercise because a plan drives your work. So if you need to, take a step back and speak with your leaders about what you want to achieve in the coming years.
Keep in mind that boards evolve over time. They typically move through the founding stage to a developing, then mature stage and sometimes they reach institutionalized board status. So even though your bylaws indicate the number of board members allowed, your function may change over time and this number can be adjusted. (TIP: some boards like to keep an uneven number to avoid ties during votes).
Then get started on the secret to finding your magic number by answering these questions:
* What are you trying to accomplish in the next few years and who is going to do it?
* Do you have a large, talented staff?
* Are there many different perspectives represented on your board?
* Will you need to count on board committees to distribute the work?
* Do you have the right board members with the expertise you need?
* Do you have a bench of leaders ready to step in line to succeed the current officers?
* Has your board gotten so big that your members don’t really know each other?
* Are all of your current board members fully engaged?
* Do you anticipate that some members will be exiting in the near future?
* Do you need to raise a lot of money from the community?
* Do you already have plenty of ambassadors who are networked in the community?
* Are your board members getting overwhelmed and burned out from doing a lot of work?
What did you learn from your answers? Do you know the answers to every question? Some things may be obvious like you need more people to fill some committees. Others conclusions are more subtle or implied. For instance, if you have 15 members on your roster but only 7 are truly participating, you’ll want to have some private conversations to determine their future participation and this will influence your numbers.
And now for the secret – there is no perfect magic number! One year you made need 15 board members and the next year you may need 18 and the next year you may need 12. The point is – think about it! Let’s not just pick a number out of the air – what size board, and composition of board members, will allow you the best odds of achieving your goals? That’s the most important question and the answer can be a range versus a singular number.
Be mindful of term limits and natural attrition also as you prioritize intentional board recruitment as a year-round endeavor. Each nonprofit has its optimal board size and it starts with clarifying your goals, then engaging your board.