The size of the board

There is comfort in numbers. Often you will hear that if there are a lot of people on the board, there will be more wisdom, wider representation, and better decisions. More people means more volunteers to help with the work. [More about this in the next pane…]

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Some organizations are required by the bylaws to have a large board. Often this is demanded so that a large number of constituencies are represented on the board. If this is your situation, you will have to cope with the problems of finding common ground among a throng of people — and this article is not about your situation.

Usually when there is a large number of people on the board is it because the people writing or amending the bylaws chose to have many people on the board. We may discuss why this is done in a future post, but here I’d like you to consider choosing to govern with a smaller board.

What is small? Seven members is an excellent size. Nine is workable. You should have a very good reason to have an assembly that is larger than nine. This is a good size for any board, and it is especially advisable if you are to govern using Policy Governance.

Why? Suppose you have a typical board of, say, 15. There is an issue on the table for discussion. If everyone spends an average of two minutes with their initial comments, a half hour will have past before the matter is discussed earnestly. Simple discussions take a long time, and complicated issues often cannot have a full airing. It takes a skilled facilitator as the chair to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make a contribution, and still move through the agenda in a reasonable time.

Doesn’t a smaller group mean that there is less wisdom in the room, and therefore fewer good ideas? That is not my experience. Fewer people mean that all of the members must be fully engaged in the process and contributing. Each person has much more time to speak and to be heard.

The larger the board the more the temptation to leave most of the governing decisions to the head of staff or to an executive committee. Usually this is not delegation, this is abdication. (Here is another point we should explore in another article.)

Doesn’t a smaller group mean that there is less representation of the community at the board table? This is a complicated issue, but it is a feature of Policy Governance that every member of the board must represent the whole of the ‘ownership’ regardless of the community that may be identified with that member. Board members should take seriously the concept that their authority to write policy and direct the future of the organization comes entirely from their understanding of the wishes of the ownership. We will explore this point in future articles.

Doesn’t a larger board make it easier to achieve a quorum and therefore be able to hold a legal meeting? Yes. The bylaw specifying the size of the assembly necessary to achieve a quorum should not be considered direction to the board as to what is appropriate behavior. All of us who teach Policy Governance are clear in advising that boards should adopt the discipline of expecting 100% attendance at every meeting. (Yes, I promise that we will explore this point more fully.)

Doesn’t a larger board give the staff access to more volunteers to help with the job of running the organization? Certainly it could help with fund raising. It is true that some board members can provide excellent services to the societies that they govern. And board members have a large stake in the success of the organization, so they are motivated to contribute.

While board members may contribute to fund raising, and provide the staff with expertise and other services, this is not the business of governing. Frankly, we see many situations where board members are so busy with these other activities, that they see these ‘real’ contributions as more important than the work of governing. There are other ways of motivating volunteers that would be more advisable than putting these people on the board.

A smaller board simply means that the group charged with the responsibility of governing can do the job well, and come to good decisions, within a reasonable period of time.

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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