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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 9:27am
posted by
John Scola, CFRE,
John Scola & Associates

Courtney, a new executive director of a relatively small nonprofit, was anxious to learn as much as possible in order to manage her work. She knew intuitively, as well as through her experience as a mid-level manager in a nonprofit setting that board management would be a key element to her success. So Courtney enrolled in a workshop entitled “Volunteer and Board Development” at the community college nearby, and networked ferociously with her fellow directors.

After the 180-minute workshop and networking, Courtney was completely confused about one seemingly-vital element. “What is the ideal size of my board?” she wondered. Her workshop instructor firmly declared that “best practices” dictated a board of 18-25. A number of her colleagues espoused a smaller board, “no more than twelve,” since “they were the only ones who did any work anyway.” Still others declared, “the sky is the limit as far as number of board members.”

Courtney was aware of many concerns associated with board management. She knew about creating board job descriptions, heard terms like “give, get, or get off,” and knew having an orientation for new board members would be a good idea. But the simple question of optimal size of the board eluded her. So, she decided to weigh the plusses and minuses of her options.

A small board, she determined, would be nimble, easier to recruit, and would take far less of her time. A small board would allow members to meet with less notice; there would be fewer busy schedules to try to coordinate, and the nastiness of bureaucracy would be easier to evade. Very appealing! However, Courtney knew a small board could lend itself to power plays and micromanagement. She knew she didn’t want that in her new position.


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On the other hand, the large board presented some significant benefits. Courtney knew of many organizations where their ONLY requirement of board members was their ability to give or get a certain amount of money annually. If helping bring in the cash was the only expectation of board members, then surely these same folks would be less likely to stir up trouble or question Courtney’s leadership. She really only needed volunteers to help her raise money, anyway. Indeed, the large board presented a tempting option for Courtney. However, part of the attraction of this arrangement also creates a hazard. Where is the board oversight? If the only responsibility of board members is to bring money to the table, what about the fiduciary responsibilities associated with board membership? Courtney’s attraction to a large board was no doubt the result of the influence of her colleagues who lamented the excessive involvement of board members. Perhaps her colleagues were oblivious to the benefits of accessing the networks presented by a variety of board members; or perhaps they exploited those networks in addition to their income sources? Managing a larger board would certainly take more time and energy, but the rewards may well be worth the effort.

Finally, Courtney considered the so-called optimal board size of 18-25 people. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, certainly the mid-size board would be “just right,” right? Big enough to provide diversity of backgrounds, but not so large as to become unwieldy. Intimate enough to create a sense of teamwork and common purpose, but not too small as to allow for wild agendas. Courtney saw much wisdom in the so-called “optimal” board.

But like most stories, the truth is not always the same as the complete story...

Courtney actually chose the larger board. Her priority, she decided, was financial security. By having more local leaders she would increase not only total funds to her organization, but higher visibility as well. The challenges of managing a large board were mitigated by establishing an executive committee, serving as a board within the board. Many of her colleagues suggested the modification, and she was confident it would work in her organization. Keeping in mind all of these decisions required compliance with the agency’s bylaws, Courtney got just what she needed.

In her case, bigger was certainly better…at least for the moment. Have you had a similar experience when starting a nonprofit? What worked best for you?

John A. Scola, CFRE has been involved professionally in nonprofit work since 1983, having held leadership positions in Texas and Utah, as well as Arizona and California. He is actively involved in church and school activities, as well as with Legatus International and the Association of Fund Raising Professionals, who has designated him a Master Teacher through their Faculty Training Academy. He was also the recipient of that organization’s Greater Arizona Chapter Outstanding Executive Award in 2002. Among his current clients is Maggie's Place, for whom he is serving as interim executive director. In his limited spare time, he plays ice hockey, coaches youth sports and enjoys going to the movies. John and his wife Sheila have three children, and live in north Phoenix.

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