State law typically sets the minimum number of directors a not-for-profit must have on its board. But as long as that requirement is fulfilled, it is up to each organization to determine how many total board members it needs. While there is no “sweet spot” that will work for every organization, several guidelines can help you determine the right board size for your circumstances.
Why the Size and Composition of the Board Matter
Both small and large boards come with perks and drawbacks. For example, smaller boards allow for easier communication and greater cohesiveness among the members. Scheduling is less complicated, and meetings tend to be shorter and more focused. Plus, the members’ higher level of involvement can heighten their satisfaction.
Several studies have indicated that group decision making is most effective when the group size is five to eight people. But boards on the small side of this range may lack the experience or diversity necessary to facilitate healthy deliberation and debate. And the members may feel overworked and burn out.
Burnout is less likely with a large board where each member shoulders a smaller burden, including when it comes to fundraising. A large board may include more perspectives and a broader base of professional expertise — for example, financial advisors, attorneys, community leaders and former clients. It fosters a strong institutional memory and provides a more extended outside network.
On the other hand, larger boards can lead to disengagement, because the members may not feel they have enough responsibilities or sufficient voice in discussions and decisions. Larger boards also require more staff support and strain the executive director, who must develop a relationship with each member.
What You Should Weigh
If you’re thinking about resizing your board, think about:
- The current sentiment about its size (is the consensus that it’s too large or too small?);
- Board member responsibilities and desirable expertise;
- Fundraising needs;
- Committee structure;
- The organization’s life stage (for example, start-up or mature);
- The size of the organization’s staff;
- The complexity of the issues facing the board; and
- Board turnover and recruitment of new members.
You may have heard that it is wise to have an uneven number of board members to avoid 50/50 votes. In such a case, though, the chair can make the decision. Moreover, an issue that produces a 50/50 split usually deserves more discussion to come closer to consensus.
How to Downsize
If you decide a larger board is in order, you likely already know how to recruit more members. Trimming the board is a trickier situation.
For starters, you might need to change your bylaws. Generally, it is best to set a range for board size in the bylaws, rather than a precise number. Your bylaws already might call for staggered terms, which makes paring down simpler; as members’ terms end, just do not replace them.
If part of the motivation for reduced board size is a lack of engagement, you could establish an automatic removal process. But remind exiting board members that the board is not the only way they can serve the organization.
Beyond the Numbers
One of the best methods for recruiting and retaining committed board members is to ensure an engaging experience. Maintaining an appropriately sized board that makes the most of their talents is the first step.