Nonprofits are increasingly looking for ways to step up their governance game. Two approaches organizations could consider to build better board governance are to reduce the number of members that sit on the board and to recruit members that represent the community the mission serves. By reforming your board in these two ways, you can increase your board’s effectiveness and be on track to making a bigger impact as your mission moves forward.
Reducing the Number of Board Members Can Increase Board Effectiveness
It’s generally assumed—incorrectly—that the bigger the board the more effective it will be. Legally, states have different standards for how many individuals must be on a board (in California it is only one), but many nonprofits feel that by creating large boards they will automatically be able to raise more money and increase their impact in the community. This stems from the belief that many committees are needed to do the work of the board, but you have to ask yourself, “What are all these committees doing to advance our community impact, and could we benefit by eliminating one or more of them?” Eliminating committees that don’t focus on strategic questions and issues that really matter to the organization means that you can reduce the number of members needed to participate in these committees. If you feel those committees are important, you don’t have to rely on populating them with only board members in most cases; many nonprofits don’t take advantage of adding non-board members to committees.
If downsizing is the right choice, here are three ways to reduce board size:
- Change the bylaws. If your organization’s bylaws call for a minimum of 15 members, but 10 would be a more productive number, then change the bylaws to reflect that. We believe including a range for the number of board members offers the most flexibility for nonprofits.
- Cycle members off. When board members finish their terms, simply don’t fill those spots. This reduces the need to spend time and resources re-educating new members who aren’t already connected to the mission. If you are feeling really courageous, assess every board member and proactively ask those to leave even in mid-term if they can’t deliver on their commitments or stewardship role. If you wouldn’t fight to keep them, why are they on your board?
- Don’t invite members back. The board member review process can be a time for both the member and the organization to decide if they are a good fit together. If a member isn’t making a significant contribution, then it might be time to part ways. This can be tricky for an organization, but done respectfully and delicately, an organization can retain the departing member’s support.
Ground Your Organization by Including Community Members on the Board
It’s not just about reducing numbers; it’s also about involving members who can help connect the mission to the community and ensure your organization stays relevant and meets the changing needs of its constituents. In the past, board members have generally been recruited for their access to funding, prestige and networking abilities, but, if an organization is working in a disadvantaged or underserved community, then strictly recruiting these types of members can be detrimental, as they are making decisions for a community to which they don’t belong. More and more, nonprofits are calling on community members to serve on their boards, hoping that their voices can reflect new perspectives directly relevant to programs.
This new approach isn’t without its own set of problems; it’s difficult to marry the traditional fundraising board with a community board and remain effective. One issue that community members face as board members is that they may feel like they don’t belong on the board. With much of the conversation revolving around the fundraising side of the mission, they may feel like they don’t have the wealth or influence to make an impact, but this is why they are absolutely needed—to shift the dialogue towards discussion about the programs, their effectiveness, and the issues that they face. For your organization, it might even be a good idea to shift fundraising responsibilities from the governing board to an advisory committee of major donors who have shown financial commitment and fundraising prowess. This would allow the board to focus primarily on programmatic policy and impact.
Whether it’s about reducing the numbers or including new types of members, one thing is clear: there needs to be a conversation on board reformation. Most boards and executive directors spend so much of their time and resources trying to get board members to raise money and tap into their networks—often with very little success—that it leaves little room for concentrating on what really counts: serving the community. By trying new approaches to board governance, a nonprofit may be able to connect its mission more tangibly to the community.