Let’s Talk Board Size: Considerations for Managing a Large Association Board

By William Hixson, CAE, Management Services Executive, The Core Management Company

Like many things in life, association boards of directors come in many shapes and sizes. There is no magic number that makes for an ideal board of directors. A board should have a sufficient number of members to represent a diverse sample of the particular industry or profession the association represents. There should be enough members to execute the duties of the board as defined by the organization’s bylaws and other governing documents.

A larger board can make for more seamless succession planning, and in the case of a more hands-on board, can increase the organization’s productivity. More perspectives and ideas are brought to the table with a larger board. However, “the more the merrier” does not necessarily ring true when it comes to board size. Having an overly inflated board may lead to a lack of camaraderie and an inability to act efficiently.

BoardSource, a nonprofit board leadership and educational organization, conducted a survey in 2000 and found that the average size of nonprofit boards, not including churches, was 17 directors. The number decreased slightly to 16 members in 2007, and the median number is 15. BoardSource notes that these statistics tell us that the average board size of nonprofits is slowly decreasing, and that the average size is still more than most experts recommend.

Additionally, the size of the organization often plays a role in the number of board members. Nonprofit organizations with budgets of over $10 million have an average of 18 board members, while associations with budgets of less than $1 million have around 14 board directors. Based on the board size data referenced above, we can consider any board of 20 or more members a large board, and any board of 10 or less members a small board.

Managing a Large Board

So how do you successfully manage a large board?  Communication is key. If camaraderie is less present amongst larger boards, you will need to create added opportunities to engage board members who fly under the radar. Incorporate team building activities designed to build trust. Leave ample time for networking so board members can get to know each other on a more personal level. Solicit the opinions of those who speak up infrequently.

When it comes to a large board, decision making and action taking may not happen as quickly as it would with a small board. This is why it’s crucial to develop systems to avoid falling into the trap of inaction. Do your governing documents empower the Executive Committee to take action on certain issues that may not necessarily need the discretion of the full board? Is the Executive Committee trusted to act on behalf of the best interest of the board? Is the Executive Committee meeting regularly and taking action on items that may not require the attention of the full board?

Organizations with a high number of board members must budget extra funds and time. There are the obvious financial factors impacting a large board: travel costs, lodging, meals, and other meeting expenses. What about your board development budget? Have you budgeted funds to train board members and give them the resources they need to thrive in their role? 

Finances aside, in many cases budgeting time is more difficult than budgeting funds. There’s no way around it: successfully managing a large board will take more time. You’ll need added time for adequate networking, added time to hear everyone’s opinions and ideas, and added time to come to decisions. Be sure to add sufficient time to each meeting agenda for every topic, but stick to the agenda. With a large board it’s easy for all of the meeting time to be consumed before making it through the full agenda. Schedule meetings far in advance to ensure strong board attendance, and schedule more meeting days and time than you may need – it’s better to finish early than to rush to make it through the agenda. Utilize the power of technology as meeting in person will not always be practical.

In conclusion, when determining the right board size, think about the Goldilocks principle of “just the right amount.” Large boards may present added challenges to an organization, but with those challenges come opportunities. There are pros and cons to everything in life – find what works for your organization, and determine what will best meet your mission and serve your members. 

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