LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman got a gasp from the audience at a huge meeting of nonprofit executives. Linda Crompton, the executive director of BoardSource at the time, had just asked him what size board of directors he thought was optimal.
Directors of Higher Quality
Crompton and the audience were taken aback by his response: any board with more than six individuals is questionable.
But there were also approving nods. Many boards are defying tradition by having less than twelve to twenty-four members. They are finding the advantages of working in a small group. Smaller boards have been championed by governance thought leaders like Dan Hotchkiss and John Carver as suited for a variety of NGOs.
Because having twelve, sixteen, or even twenty-four directors was the standard a generation ago, some NGOs have enormous boards. With enough individuals to share the workload, these numbers divided up well to form typical committees for finance, program, fundraising, and nominations. These boards have a tendency to let structure dictate procedure, and they frequently struggle to fill the classes that open each year.
Annually electing one or two new directors allows a board to bring in just those people who are passionate about the organization’s goals and have the time, money, and motivation to see them through.
Participation of Higher Quality
Even if a big board is successful in completing its roster, the seats may be difficult to fill. With each new board member, organizing board meetings and ensuring complete participation becomes increasingly difficult. When you include cross-country travel for boards with members from different regions, things get extremely interesting. Online tools such as Doodle.com can assist, although boards with more than twelve members seldom achieve 100% participation at every meeting. Having a large group present during a meeting allows certain people to stay silent or unnoticed. It’s possible that good ideas may be overlooked, and objections—or, more significantly, hesitations—will go unnoticed. Dan Hotchkiss writes in his book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership that “large boards, on the whole, tend to be more passive and less able to engage employees as powerful partners.” The board’s ability to maintain a line of thought gets more difficult as attendance becomes less steady.”
Decision Making of Higher Quality
According to several studies, the ideal size for problem-solving teams is around six individuals. According to Marcia W. Blenko, Michael C. Mankins, and Paul Rogers, authors of Decide and Deliver: Five Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization, each extra person in a decision-making committee diminishes decision effectiveness by 10%. (After all, what is a board of directors if not a collection of people who make decisions?) While best practices recommend that nonprofit boards form ad hoc committees to investigate complicated topics and provide solutions to the whole board for consideration, the decision is ultimately made by the full board. The notion that a larger board equals more buy-in is frequently false.
Although a huge board may give political or social cover, it is unlikely to produce better judgments than a smaller board.
If you haven’t already, consider amending your bylaws to allow for a variety of board sizes rather than a set number of directors. The provision that “the board should include no less than six and no more than nine directors” allows the board to be flexible in addressing its governance demands. Consider changing your rules to allow for a variety of board sizes.