The Goldilocks Effect: Getting Your Organization’s Board Size “Just Right”

How the size of a board impacts the success of an organization.

“Not too little, not too big, but just right.” We can thank Goldilocks’s innovative decision-making strategies for giving us this antiquated quote. However, unlike Goldilocks, it is not just the temperature of our porridge or the softness of our beds raising skepticism. Instead, organizations are beginning to question the number of members on their board. How many board members is the right amount? What size enables an organization to acquire desired results most effectively and efficiently?

Well, when it comes down to your organization’s board … size matters. The number of members sitting on a board can range from one to 50, and as the organization grows so does its quantity of passionate members seeking leadership positions. However, as the composition of nonprofit boards grows in both diversity and size, these organizations begin to question their own efficiency. Both big and small boards possess pros and cons, but how is an organization supposed to know what works best to get the job(s) done? It is a simple matter of testing and finding a board size “just right” for your organization and its volunteers.

The question remains, “what size should an effective board be?”

Before any decision is made, it is important to consider the needs of your organization and what characteristics define the requirements the board of directors will need to meet.

A variety of outside factors influence what size a board should be. How complex is the organization? How fast is it growing? Other influences such as history, culture, size and diversity play a part as do workload amounts, strategic plans and state laws. All are vital details to factor in and consider when deciding on how many members your board should have.

Like Goldilocks, let’s consider all of our options.

First, what are the pros of having a large board?

  • Larger number of volunteers
  • Widely dispersed workload
  • Organized staff support
  • Reliance on executive committees to make focalized decisions
  • Plenty of ideas to go around
  • Promotes diversity within organization’s cultures
  • Brings a larger network (the more people you have the more people they know, the more they can extend their outreach when needed)

The Cons?

  • Longer board discussions
  • Varying schedules to consider when planning meetings
  • Too many differentiating opinions can cause disengagement of quieter members and arguments between more involved members
  • “Cliques” can form
  • Coming to agreements can take a long time
  • Members might feel as though their voice is not “heard”
  • Larger burden on the executive director
  • Requires more committees and paid staff to manage them aka more $$$

On the other hand, what are the pros and cons of a smaller board size?

The Pros?

  • Shorter board discussions
  • Regular, consistent meetings because of less schedules to accommodate
  • Discussions are more focused leading to quicker decision making
  • Formation of closer bonds between members
  • Everyone gets an equal say
  • Higher levels of productivity
  • Higher levels of efficiency
  • More flexibility

The Cons?

  • Smaller all-volunteer board members have more responsibilities per person
  • Members can feel overworked and overburdened
  • Too much time invested into volunteering can take away from members family time and paid work

With all the ups and down taken into consideration, you might be left wondering what size to choose. Finding the right size for a nonprofit board is inevitably tricky but answering these two questions can help steer you in the right direction.

  1. What does the board need to accomplish?
  2. Is the right expertise on the board to achieve it?

Answer those questions and you are already one step closer to achieving the most efficient and effective board size to benefit your organization. Moreover, consider your organization’s life-cycle, mission and fundraising needs as these three elements dictate what number of directors is best suited for your nonprofit’s needs.

If you’re looking for another push in the “just right” direction, this study conducted by Bain Capital Private Equity might help. According to the study, the optimal number of directors for a board is seven. Why? The results showed that every additional board member added after seven decreased decision-making by 10%. So, when a nonprofit is on a mission to find the perfect number for its board, seven members makes for a great starting point!

Whether your current board is large, small or just beginning there is no need to worry. Every organization is different and will have varying needs. As long as volunteers are passionate about the work they do and their organization’s mission, success is a given.