How Big (or Small) Should a Board be to be Effective?

In my years of working in the non-profit sector, I have noticed that there seem to be different theories about how big (or small) a board should be. One theory is to get as many people as possible on the board as possible (big donors, big names, etc.) Another theory is to have a small but committed governing board.

Let me back up for a moment- when I refer to a “board”, I mean the governing body of a non-profit organization. They can go by different names- Board of Directors, Executive Board, etc. … but in essence they are the committee that is essentially “in charge” of the non-profit organization.

I personally am in favor of having a smaller but committed board. I think a board of 10 committed individuals (i.e. willing to come to all meetings, etc.) is ideal.

However, there is another school of thought that seems to prefer having a large board (for example, 30 people). I can understand the reasoning behind this. It is great to include leaders and large donors in your board. However, I feel that this can also lead to having members “in name” only (i.e. people who are theoretically on the board, but never show up to the meetings). Is this a bad thing, or is it worth it to have these people, even if in name only, on your board?

Another reason why the size of boards may tend to balloon is that non-profits may feel reluctant to “retire” their lay leaders who have served the organization for decades (or scores!). So we are dealing with the desire to bring in “new blood” (which will hopefully sustain our organizations in the future), while at the same time not wanting to disrespect or offend those who have served for MANY years. But is it ever OK to “retire” lay leaders after many years of service? Should there be limits on how long a person can serve on a board?

As I wrote above, I personally think it is more valuable to have a small, dedicated board. What do you think?

Chava Ashkenazi

Jerusalem, Israel

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2 Responses to How Big (or Small) Should a Board be to be Effective?

  1. Jonny Gritt says:

    I have worked with a very diverse number of community and charitable organisations both in the UK and NZ. I would agree that smaller Main Boards of between 6 and 8 active and complementary Board members seems to provide the ideal. Its more about the combined skill set, networks and cohesiveness they maintain rather than the actual number of members and often the use of 2 or 3 sub committees can provide focus for particular aspects of running the operation, allowing others with specific expertise to support the Main Board’s strategic direction.

  2. chavaleh1127 says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jonny! I agree that smaller boards tend to be more effective.

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