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Board Size

This is the most frequent question talked about in boardrooms and bedrooms across America.  My area of expertise is limited to the size of boards, so I’ll spare you my other opinions.

The board size question keeps coming up in my discussions with a range of organizations.  Many are struggling to find a board size that feels comfortable and allows them to achieve their goals. Some boards are bound to a size dictated by their by-laws written decades ago, when board member expectations were minimal and talent was easy to recruit.  Others are frustrated by their board’s lack of engagement as they add more members to a long roster of impressive names, believing that they will raise a lot more money with every board member added.  In many cases, a larger board does not always result in greater fundraising.  In fact, their impact diminishes as boards grow and disengagement increases.  I’ve seen relatively small but committed boards outperform larger boards in terms of fundraising.  In those situations, the critical success factors are leadership and engagement, not board size.

My answer to the initial question about board size is, “It depends.” When you start to think about the right size for your board, there is no magic number.  It really depends on the external environment and your internal goals.  Some of it comes from trial and error.  Many times the size needs to change over time given the priorities at hand.  Another way to frame the issue is to benchmark highly effective organizations with similar profiles and analyze the size and composition of their boards.   In any case, committee design should drive how you determine the minimum number of board members you will need to have fully functioning committees.

At any size, boards should be conscious of committee creep, where every major initiative or staff function is assigned to a committee.  Committee design should be based upon the strategic plan rather than on static by-laws or the staff’s organizational structure.  There’s rarely a need to have more than 3 to 4 standing committees for any size board.  I encourage boards to organize a task force or event committee for special projects, events or time-limited goals.  The only committees that should duplicate a staff function are fundraising and finance, and even then they should be focused on strategic matters rather than operations.

How big is too big?  According to a BoardSource survey, the average board size is 15.3 members, down from 19 in 1994. More boards recognize that a smaller, engaged board has the potential to get more work done if they are extremely committed to the mission. A larger board has the advantage of allowing for more diversity.  Many times that’s the secret sauce that helps create a high performing board.

The ultimate answera board should be big enough to get the work of the board done based upon the strategic priorities, but small enough so that board members feel engaged, share their talents and skills, and effectively collaborate to successfully achieve the strategic objectives of the organization.  Using these criteria, less than seven is too small and more than forty is too big– no matter what the size of the organization.

In the end, board size is so important that it deserves thoughtful discussion, ongoing adjustment and a focus on mission and strategic alignment.  Much like a custom tailored suit, the board size will be a unique fit–one that is patterned around the organization’s goals, stage of growth and culture.

Is your board too big?  Maybe.  To get your board thinking about the right size, here is a checklist to get the discussion started.

By the end of the summer, I have spent so much time on baseball fields that I have a keen understanding of what it takes to build a winning team. A key element is to develop players to have the five tools of an all-star player.  At bat, the five-tool player can hit for average, hit for power, and has amazing speed.  He complements this with great fielding and a strong arm.    In the major leagues only a few have ever achieved this star power like Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mickey Mantle.  Yet every player aspiring to greatness works on those five skills.  Every winning team recruits for these five areas.  

This team-building process using a five-tool framework can be applied to non-profit boards of directors ready for the big leagues. This approach recognizes the broad talents required for building high-performing boards.  And like great baseball players, every board member needs to work on building these tools.  Like winning teams, every board needs to recruit for the five tools and that special five-tool board member.

Here are the five tools or competencies that non-profit boards should target and build:

1) Mission-Focus – Every board member needs to firmly commit to the mission and not just in words.  Board members must embrace and support the organization’s mission and it must go deeper than writing a check or showing up for meetings.  A board member’s engagement is closely linked to their passion for the mission.

 2) Leadership – Board members need to be recruited for their ability to build and motivate teams to deliver tangible results.  The focus should be on recruiting for leadership characteristics and not solely for a title or functional expertise.  For example, it is better to seek out a board member who has built diverse, global teams for a financial services organization rather than someone in just any finance role.

 3) Connections - Board members who consistently deliver the greatest impact are the ones who make meaningful connections, whether it is with donors or other leaders who can influence outcomes for your organization.   They must have the vision and willingness to bring the right people together for the organization’s mission.

 4) Business Savvy – Yes, I said it. Business skills do belong in a non-profit.  They just need to be tempered by the mission.  Board leaders must understand how to get things done within the organization’s resource constraints and help expand resources within a sustainable model.   This means board members must monitor the current and future bottom line, cash flow and reserves.

5) Collaborator – Board members who can work positively across functional areas and even reach outside the organization to address its greatest needs are highly valued.  They can take an organization from survival mode to thriving with greater impact.

As you think about your board, make sure you recruit and retain with these five tools in mind.  Although fundraising is not explicitly stated in any of these tools, I believe that if you find board members with the first three tools they will have the toolkit for an effective fundraiser.  Ideally, all board members should possess at least three of these tools with the mission-focused tool required of everyone. The Board Chair and other key leaders should be all-stars – the five-tool board members.   

When you take stock of your board based on the five-tool framework, you will identify your all-stars, bench strength and competency gaps.   With this assessment, your recruiting efforts can better focus on filling the gaps to build a stronger board and winning team.

Who are your five-tool board members? Is your board ready for the big leagues?

Non-profit CEOs, how do you know you have a great board? The simple yet surprising answer is this: When your board has the leadership, integrity, vision and courage to fire you if you are not serving the mission.  

So ask yourself, would your board fire you? And if not, do you have the courage and leadership to build a board that would? Building a strong board requires hard work and demands that you look beyond your own inner circle of friends, family and contacts for leaders who will challenge you.

Board members must be willing to say no to initiatives when and if they are inconsistent with the organizational mission. Your board must contain members who support the organizational mission and can fill roles that address your strategic priorities. They must be leaders who have experience thinking about the future, managing change and developing people. Their values must be in sync with the organization’s values. Board members must challenge you to excel and perform at the very highest level.

This kind of board is not something that just happens; this kind of board must be built. And once in place, this board will stand for nothing less than a dynamic, mission-driven CEO that is making an impact and focusing on what matters most. This kind of board will demand an organization that is built not around your capabilities, energy and ego but rather they will demand that you build an organization that can survive your loss. 

Ask yourself if you have built this kind of board. And if not, what is holding you back from recruiting strong board leaders.  To quickly assess and begin building a strong board, here is a checklist to aid your thinking.

Is your greatest fear getting fired or have you built a board that is helping you lead an organization that is consistently fulfilling its mission?