The Goldilocks Approach to Nonprofit Board Size: What Is “Just Right”?

Let’s start some discussion on board design! Now that NPQ has covered the finding on board diversity in detail, we’ll be surfacing additional findings from BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent report over the next month or so, starting with this simple, very clear trend.


Among many interesting findings in BoardSource’s “Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices” report is a simple one on board size. Average board size has steadily declined over the past 20 years, as the chart below shows. It’s not clear whether this is due to a distinct set of beliefs, but BoardSource has some thoughts on the trend.

BoardSource acknowledges a board’s size has an impact on how it does its work, but they also recognize that different sizes of board may work for different nonprofits. Here’s what they say in the report:

While there is no “right” size for a board, BoardSource believes that it is possible for a board to be either too small or too large. Generally speaking, BoardSource recommends that a board have no fewer than five board members. But even if that minimum has been achieved, a board may be too small if the following circumstances apply:

  • It does not have access to the expertise and perspectives it needs to make good decisions and plans for the organization.
  • It struggles to maintain independence or exert influence in a way that provides the necessary oversight and balance to the chief executive.
  • It does not have access to the networks it needs to build its reach and reputation in a way that enables it to secure the funding and influence it needs to do its work.

A board may be too big in these situations:

  • There are too many board members to meaningfully engage in a full board conversation.
  • Real deliberation and discussion on big organizational issues is being shifted to the executive committee.
  • Board members are disconnected from the board’s governing role and participation is on an almost honorary basis.

So, maybe we are slowly drifting from the idea of a board as a collection of as many highly connected people as we can convince to join and toward a body that can make decisions responsibly. We can only hope this will come with recognition that governance can extend far beyond the board of directors, leaving us less driven to see that body as the sole way to involve stakeholders and supporters.

In any case, the trend toward reduced board sizes on average seems rational to us. For those of you still fighting about the question, BoardSource says very clearly there’s no external benchmark for the right size of a board. Instead, the range depends on your particular organizational and governance design—thus, the Goldilocks-like search for what’s just right for you.

But, we would love to hear your thoughts on the issue of board size. How large or small in your board, and how well does it work? Do you know what the design thinking is behind the size of your board and your governance design in general?

  • Priscilla Prince Hunt

    Our Board is made up of volunteers. They are highly committed but participation in face-to-face meetings is an expensive endeavor since they pay their own travel expenses, most from out of state. It is harder and harder to get Board members and so we have recently reduced the size required by our by-laws.

  • Susan Dennison

    Having been a member of a 3-person board – too small and helping lead a 10-member board – I think 12-15 members feels like the idea number. I follow the 80/20 rule – 80% of the work will be done by 20% of the people, so while you need some members who can open doors and make contacts, you also need members who can do the work.

  • I am a little concerned about the downward trend in board size. I think that if a board gets too small it becomes increasingly difficult to support an active committee structure – all committees become essentially a committee of the whole. It also can make board meetings less effective and engaging when there are any absences, for example. If there are only 8 or 9 members on a board, and 2 are absent (even for legitimate reasons), that leaves a very small group left in the room to participate in the meeting (fewer if any board members are phoning into the meeting rather than attending in person.) Smaller boards can also lead to burnout when too many responsibilities are shared among fewer members. I agree that a large board – 20+ for example – is potentially really hard to manage. But I think that a small board can create a number of problems that are a big challenge to manage as well. All of my clients ask me what’s the perfect size for a board… and each time I tell them that there is no one right number. Thanks for raising this important issue Ruth!


  • I tackled this question a few years ago in an essay on my firm’s blog: http://www.sumptionandwyland.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=40&Itemid=57&rid=83 or http://tinyurl.com/yafrj6cm

    Two brief quotes from the essay:

    1) “The simple answer is that most authors agree that a typical nonprofit board of directors should comprise not less than 8-9 members and not more than 11-14 members.”

    2) “Whatever else the board is tasked with doing, its fundamental purpose is
    to effectively govern the organization. Therefore, board size ought to
    be influenced primarily not by fundraising, constituency-building,
    diversity, or other factors. It must be influenced primarily by the
    overarching need to provide its stakeholders and community with a
    well-governed organization with the capacity to fulfill its stated
    mission. Constituency-building, fund development, diversity in all its
    forms, and other factors are also important, but effective governance is
    the top priority. Therefore, nonprofit board size should be designed to
    assure successful governance function above all else. Fortunately, the
    consensus of the available literature supports a board size compatible
    with this emerging requirement.”

  • g myers

    When I get asked as a consultant about board size, I usually have found 10-14 is optimal for most bylaws. This ensures a variety of opinions, good discussion, and the ability to spread out work that belongs to the board. And it gives room for the board to grow or shrink slightly and still be compliant. If you have only 5 and 1-2 are missing from a meeting, that’s a problem. When I came to Oregon I was shocked to find that a nonprofit can be legal with only 3 members. And I have seen a number of dysfunctional organizations that essentially are the husband and wife founders, with a friend “on” the board. This is usually a founder-driven, unsustainable, and big problem at some point. Plus how much harder is it to achieve diversity or equity on a board that is small?