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Aug 23, 2012

Time to question value of large boards?

In the Chronicle of Higher Education Jack Stripling  wonders if a board of trustees can be too large. The arguments for a large board are to encourage large donors, expand diversity of membership, and appease certain constituencies.  The arguments against size are disengagement, incomplete or inconsistent communication, and decision-making without conviction.  Ironically Stripling notes, “In a notable contradiction, some of the largest governing boards can be found at colleges that promote the intimacy of small class sizes as a pedagogical hallmark. If it’s true that the leaders of these colleges think students learn more when there are fewer of them in a room, what should be made of the instruction their trustees are receiving?”

I often find nonprofits arguing for larger boards in the expectation that it will increase fundraising potential.  That works only if board participation is the only effective way to build the donor/board members’ trust.  I wrote in Chapter 19 of Linking Mission to Money that it is a mistake to give donor’s less information that one gives to trustees.  Introducing an inner circle of information access breeds suspicion and potentially distrust by those in the outer circles.

At the same time, the biggest challenge in assembling a board is getting the right mix of skills and engaging them sufficiently to maintain their interest in and commitment to the nonprofit.  As I wrote in More Than Just Money an effective board is comprised of people who are able to provide three critical attributes: 1. A personal passion for the mission and role of the nonprofit organization. 2.A commitment to work for the success of the organization by providing time, financial support, and public advocacy. 3. The ability to free up sufficient time to be active and involved in all leadership activities of the organization.”

I have never seen those attributes present in a governing board larger than 15 people.  I have seen very useful large advisory or “friends of” boards. My workshop, Three Tools to Keep Nonprofit Boards Strategically Focused and Out of the Weeds may be just what you need for your board.