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Article Published: 01 May 2020

What’s the Right Size?

I am asked frequently about the ideal size of a board, and I don’t have a specific answer, ratio or formula. There is no magic number. Rather, I refer to a balance between the natural forces that push for a larger board, and compelling reasons for a smaller one.

The right answer for your company will be linked to the character of your community and the size of the company and its staff. Members of the Governance Committee (a term I use instead of “Nominating Committee,” since the nominating process is only one aspect of good governance) should consider the right size of the board periodically — along with the structure of board meetings, the number of committees and frequency of meetings. And bigger is not necessarily better…

Why should a board be large?
A good board includes members with a broad range of essential skills they make available to the staff, such as strategic planning, accounting and legal expertise, among others. It includes people with wide spheres of influence in major areas of the local economy, including financial services, real estate, higher education and the medical community, depending on the major sectors represented in the power structure of the city.

It is important to have board members who are socially active (to chair galas and host special events), who live in different parts of the metropolitan area (belonging to different clubs, religious institutions and PTAs), and who are diverse in terms of race, age, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

The need to be broadly representative of the community and equipped with the right skills and connections leads to a larger board.

Financial need may also drive the size of a board. If the average board member contribution is $11,500, ten more board members translates into another $115,000 or more of “dependable” philanthropy. Why not have a larger board? On the other hand…

Why should a board be small?
A sense of teamwork and shared obligation among board members is essential to a successful company.

Effective boards have strong bonds of mutual obligation among members. Board members are more likely to attend board meetings, galas and opening nights when their absence will be noted. They are more likely to participate actively in discussion and decision-making when they can all face each other around a table, rather than seated in rows. Board members are more likely to respond to company emergencies when they know their personal intervention will help solve a problem.

Board members are more generous and enthusiastic when they have regular opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the organization beyond their annual gifts, when their skills and connections are called on to make a difference for the company, and when they are supported on the path to successful completion of their assignments. Individual purposefulness and success result from personal attention, sustained stewardship and individual portfolio management.

Board members are like artists who need to be coached. They are not equally skilled at or comfortable with calling on government officials, planning community events, opening doors at important corporations or soliciting contributions. Like singers making role debuts, board members may need extra time learning their parts.

Board members expect staff to give them time and attention when they call the office to offer suggestions, request tickets or are ready to make introductions in the community. Many companies with small staffs don’t have time to respond to or coordinate the work of board members, leaving them to feel underutilized or, worse, disaffected. Without a strong rapport between board and staff — and the sense of individual value — board members are less likely to participate in company activities or make special contributions.

Finally, board members will give more generously when they are solicited individually each year rather than by a general letter. Understanding each board member’s motivation for giving, researching their capacity to give, cultivating their deeper interest, scheduling individual appointments and following up appropriately takes time. How many robust relationships can be managed by the staff in coordination with board leaders?

Determining the right board size is a matter of determining the right board size for you.

What’s right for you?
Many factors should be considered when establishing an ideal size for your board: Who needs to be around the board table for you to deliver on your mission? How can your staff (and fellow board members) support those individuals to be successful on your behalf? How do you balance the two?

Determining the right board size is a matter of determining the right board size for you. It is important to remember that board size can work against board effectiveness. And it is effectiveness that will contribute to success.

This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Across the Board, a publication of OPERA America for opera company trustees.