Developing a Board of Directors: How Many People Do I Need and Who Should The People Be?

The process of forming or redeveloping a non-profit organization always involves thinking about the board of directors. The two key questions, among others, that I have been asked over the years are, “How many people should we have on the board? and “Who should we approach to join the board of directors?” Depending on how the leadership envisions the role and function of the board will determine how the board should be constituted both in terms of the types of people who will be approached to serve on the board as well as the number of positions that will be filled during the process of constituting a new board or reconstituting an existing board of directors.

The main purpose of the board of directors is being accountable for the functions of the organization and being responsible for is financial sustainability. A major portion of the board’s activities are focused on determining the policies guiding the agency and making decisions about services provided to the community. The board holds the agency staff accountable for how it fulfills the organization’s purposes in its day to day functioning and how the committees of the board carry out their specific functions.

Let’s look at what this mean in terms of who is invited to join the board and the number of people that are needed to complete the tasks involved in the governance process. Generally the size of the board depends on the size and scope of the organization. It is not unusual for community wide organizations serving thousands of people to have a sitting governing board of one hundred or more people. In such cases it is common practice to have an expanded “executive committee” composed of the officers and chairs of committees who will meet regularly (once a week or every two weeks) to make the ongoing decisions and the larger board will meet less frequently (perhaps once a month or every six weeks).

In more modest size organizations boards of directors will range from between 25 – 35 (give a take or few places). Boards of directors of this size can be involved in the ongoing issues of the organization and can engage in meaningful decision-making processes. The number is large enough to provide for a critical mass of people for the regular board meetings and small enough to allow for a meaningful discussion among the members at the meetings. This number also establishes a core of people who are available to serve on both standing and ad-hoc committees as discussed in a previous posting.

The 25 – 35 people allow for board members to chair and serve on committees and at the same time to have sufficient spots for people who represent the community at large, the membership or client group, other service providers and people who are interested in the organization but are not prepared to make the commitment to serve on the board. It is also a small enough number so the board meetings can be a meaningful experience for those people who are invested in volunteering the time, expertise and knowledge to further the aims and objectives of the agency. It is most important for the board members to know their participation is valued and makes a difference in the governance of the organization.

The second aspect of building or re-engineering a board is looking for the right people who should be approached. In an existing agency a mapping of the board should be conducted to identify the strengths represented by those who are presently serving. Whether for the presently functioning organization or a new one it is important to identify the profiles of the people who would be the “ideal” volunteer leadership. Based on this list people in the community would then be selected and approached to see if they are interested in serving on the board.

Some of the criteria used for selecting potential board members include the following, among others: community leaders who understand the purpose of the agency and have shared values; people who have financial resources and have strong social networks; representatives from the geographical area that the organization serves; clients or members of the organization; professionals from other agencies who are prepared to share their expertise in a lay leadership capacity; and a mix of ages representing the diversity of the community from seasoned volunteer leadership to emerging young leadership.

In approaching people who would enhance the workings of a board it is a good practice to have those who are presently involved in the nonprofit organization reach out to potential members. It is best to have a face to face meeting and it is not uncommon for the CEO of the organization and an active lay leader to meet with people together. The approach often depends on the connection between the active lay leader and the potential new board member.

The key to building a strong functioning board is being clear about the organization’s purpose and communicating the value placed on having a committed, knowledgeable, able and involved leadership group. People give of their time when they know they are valued and make an important contribution through their active participation in the life of the organization. When the board of directors is formed and constituted in the right way not only will the nonprofit benefit but everyone will feel the impact of the strong leadership group’s influence on the services provided to the community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.