The Unfortunate Lure of Small Nonprofit Governing Boards

pic_Committees1Over the past several years, many nonprofits have begun to shrink their boards to sizes ranging from 9 to 12 people.  Both board and staff leaders have argued that a smaller board is more productive and easier to manage.  This model seems to be coming from the for-profit board where smaller boards are the norm (comparably) and chief executives are also the board chair (though this trend is changing as more corporate boards are choosing an independent director to be the chair of the board).

I would contend that the size of the board should be based on the amount of community engagement the organization wishes to have.  If a nonprofit organization does not require significant community engagement then it does not need to structure itself with a large amount of community interaction.  However, if philanthropy is to play a role in the organization, then community engagement at the volunteer leadership level is essential.

When I look across the country at those organizations that raise significant amounts of money year in and year out, I notice that the size of their boards is significantly larger than 9 to 12 people.  Even if they have a “partner” foundation leading the fundraising activity for the organization (which expands engagement opportunities significantly), the governing board is typically 18 people or more.  The trend to smaller boards stifles community engagement and limits the amount of connections with key philanthropic constituents.

Why do organizations want smaller boards?  They are easier to manage.  Larger boards, to be productive and effective, require much more work on the part of staff and board leadership.  With a smaller board the need for committees goes away, as much of the work can be conducted through “a committee of the whole” at a board meeting.  My observations are that many boards allow too much detail to be discussed at board meetings when they do committee work at the board level, and thus, in a drive to become more productive, they lapse into a discussion that makes them less productive.

I was doing a presentation to a nonprofit board, at the request of one of the board members and the executive director, on why they needed to expand their membership and create committees.  One of the board members challenged my thinking saying they were very productive, and though that might work elsewhere, they were just fine.  After I finished my presentation, I stayed for the remainder of the meeting.  During the course of the agenda, they discussed an upcoming special event, spending 20 minutes on the save the date card!  I could not contain myself and spoke up about why they had spent so much time on such a trivial matter.  This is work that could have been better accomplished by a committee.

Here is my short list of benefits of a larger board:

Expanded involvement of significant constituents

  • More diversity of representation and opinion
  • Opportunity to build stronger committees and discuss issues at the committee level in more detail (and to also engage potential board members as committee members)
  • Allows for more strategic and generative discussions at the board meetings
  • Creates an atmosphere where the board is governing the organization and not senior staff
  • Allows for senior staff to grow professionally through their work in staffing committees (preparing them for the day when they will lead a nonprofit organization)
  • Builds trust between board members that a specific committee handles the details well, and board decisions can focus on committee recommendations more quickly thus moving the organization along at a faster pace
  • And of course, more engagement of community leadership and community constituencies, fosters greater philanthropic opportunity

What are your observations and experience?  Do you think smaller boards are better?  How should committees be organized?  What committees do you think are essential?  I look forward to reading your responses.

All the best,