What's the 'right' number of board members for a nonprofit? Whatever it takes


September 20, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Here's an often-asked question: What is the "right" number of board members for a nonprofit organization?

We all know that 10 is too few, right? Is 50 too many? Well, the answer depends largely on which organization is doing the asking and what it is trying to accomplish.

There's absolutely no magic number for a board of directors, other than those needed for legal incorporation and to meet IRS regulations. That may mean as few as three or four officers.

Have I ever seen a board with that few? Yes. Ignoring private foundations, which regularly operate with only a handful of board members, I know a couple of nonprofit boards that have worked for years with just a few good people. Conversely, I have worked withboards in excess of 50 warm bodies that have been unusually effective.

Here is a simple rule taught to me by a colleague who has worked with nonprofit boards for more than 45 years: If the number on the boardis out of sync with its functions, you have a problem . . . or several of them.

When an organization is young, a few good men and women who are passionate about the cause can work miracles. I know the small board of one new local organization that raised $300,000 in 30 days when charged to action by the chair and a small group of committed members.

As an organization matures, it typically needs additional skills and community support. Representation is sought from a wider swath of the community and may include a banker or other financial advisers, an accountant, an attorney, several representatives of the business world, community leaders, philanthropists and so on. But the key is that the board expands as its responsibilities grow.

The most common stimulus for board growth is directly related to its need for committee work. Once a board begins to organize into committees, it needs able minds and bodies to staff them. Committees should be kept to the minimum needed to do the job, but individual board members should not be burdened with too many committee assignments. I have found that board members do best when they can focus their talents.

On the other hand, giving board members too little to do does more to make a board dysfunctional than anything else. A board, like any group, is a subculture, with its own traditions, rules and expectations. These norms have a major effect on people's behavior, especially within boards of community leaders.

When a board does not require each member to be active, it is a clear danger sign. What motivation is there for a person to attend meetings when items are rubber-stamped, there are no meaty debates over policy, and the board has no opportunity to plan for the organization's future?

The "how many board members is enough" argument can get pretty inane at times, with some proponents and opponents of a specific number trying to persuade others to their viewpoint. I look at the debate this way:

First, keep it simple. If you are a social service agency operating on predictable, solid contracts, providing services to a local clientele, try to keep your board to under a dozen people. Be sure to have client representatives on the board, too.

On the other hand, if you are an organization with regional impact, many constituents, or are contemplating entering a major capital campaign, take the time to build a board that is widely representative of your marketplace. In these cases, a board of 25 or more people would not be unusual. The operative principle here is to take time to build the board carefully. Put together the strongest nominating committee possible, analyze your present board strengths and weaknesses, and recruit the most able people who can fill gaps and add value to the board.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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