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What is the “right size” for a non-profit board of directors?

Posted By Eric Ewald, CAE, Tuesday, September 8, 2015

This is a common question that cannot and should not yield a single number for an answer because there are variances in state law requirements for minimum size and the size, scope and culture of nonprofits varies greatly.  The average in the United State according to the most recent BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index is 16.  However, the best answer to the question about size is: whatever is the right size to meet the needs of your organization.

Here are some considerations:

State law regarding minimum number of directors
All states with the exception of Mississippi (which does not specify a number) requires either 1 or more members or 3 or more members.  The laws do not specify a maximum number.

What’s right for your organization?
So there are state law requirements for minimum size and the national average is 16.  What about your organization?  There are a variety of things to consider in establishing the right size of board for your organization including:

Scope/workload: Think about how many are ideal to effectively lead, manage and do the required governance work without board members burning-out.

Diversity: How many do you need to have an effective mix of individuals on the board?  The idea here is not to think of every possible element of diversity that you think needs representation (geographic, professional interest area, racial, age, sexual and other) but to assure you have an effective combination of perspectives sufficient to yield good deliberation and decision making.

Logistics and Cost:  The logistics and costs associated with orienting, training, informing, calling-together, feeding and housing boards increases with size.  What is ideal for your organization from a budgetary, staff support and overall “bandwidth” perspective?  As groups get larger, the governance skills required to lead and coordinate also increase.

Recognize the need for change
As boards and organizations progress throughout the lifecycle of founding to maturity to rebirth the organization’s needs might call for changes to the size of the Board.  Don’t assume that once the number of directors is established that it must stay that way in perpetuity.  Start-up boards tend to be smaller.  As organization’s mature and their operations expand boards tend to get bigger.

There is a Boardsource tenant that succinctly summarizes the question around board size “The optimal size for a board is not defined by a number buy by the composition of the board that achieves desired accomplishments.”


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