State law typically specifies the minimum number of directors a not-for-profit must have on its board. But so long as organizations fulfill that requirement, it’s up to them to determine how many total board members they need. Several guidelines can help you arrive at the right number.
Small vs. large
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.
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. What’s more, members may feel overworked and burn out easily.
Burnout is less likely with a large board where each member shoulders a smaller burden, including when it comes to fundraising. Large boards may include more perspectives and a broader base of professional expertise — for example, financial advisors, community leaders and former clients.
On the other hand, larger boards can lead to disengagement because the members may not feel they have sufficient responsibilities or a voice in discussions and decisions. Larger boards also require more staff support.
What you should weigh
If you’re assembling a board or thinking about resizing, consider:
- Director responsibilities and desirable expertise,
- The complexity of issues facing your board,
- Fundraising needs,
- Committee structure,
- Your organization’s life stage (for example, startup, or mature), and
- Your nonprofit’s staffing resources.
You may have heard that it’s 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.
Downsizing harder than upsizing
If you decide a larger board is in order, recruit new members. Trimming your board is a trickier proposition. For starters, you might need to change your bylaws. Generally, it’s 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 terms end, don’t replace members. Or establish an automatic removal process in which members are removed for missing a specified number of meetings.
An engaging experience
To successfully recruit and retain committed board members, you need to offer an engaging experience. Maintaining an appropriately sized board that makes the most of their talents is the first step.