Small boards

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 decisionmaking 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 members may feel overworked. This can lead to burnout and an early departure.

Large boards

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, community leaders and former clients. Large boards typically foster strong institutional memories and provide more extended outside networks.

On the other hand, largerboards can lead to disengagement because members may not feel they have enough responsibilities or sufficient voice in discussions and decisions. Larger boards also require more staff support and can strain the CEO or executive director, who must develop a relationship with each member.

Downsizing carefully

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’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 members’ terms end, just don’t replace them. If part of the motivation for reduced board size is a lack of engagement, you could establish an automatic removal process. For example, members may be removed for missing a specified number of meetings. But remind exiting board members that the board isn’t the only way they can serve the organization as there likely are many volunteer opportunities, including committee responsibilities, within the organization.

Making choices

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,
  • Your nonprofit’s life stage (for example, start-up or mature),
  • The size of your organization’s staff, and
  • The complexity of the issues facing the board.

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 break a tie. Moreover, an issue that produces a 50/50 split usually deserves more discussion to come closer to consensus.

Finding the sweet spot

There’s no board member size “sweet spot” that will work for every organization. In fact, it may take several attempts to find the right size for your organization. Consult your legal and tax professionals for help in making changes to your board’s size.