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Associations Now

Big or Small: What's the Right Size for an Association Board?

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, January 2013, Feature

By: Adapted by Joe Rominiecki

Summary: Would a small board make your association more efficient? Would a big board be more representative of your membership? While it might seem like a minor facet of your governance structure, board size has a major influence on your operations. So, what's the right size? Here are two sides of the debate.

At your next board meeting, take a moment to count the number of directors on the board. Do you know why your association's board is that size? It might seem trivial, but the number of people on an association board has an undeniable effect on its operations and on its directors' interactions.

What is the right size? Well, that's debatable. So debatable, in fact, that six association executives participated in an Oxford-style debate at ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting on this very topic. Small-board proponents cited greater flexibility, accountability, and administrative efficiency. Their opponents said large boards, properly structured, can accomplish all of that while being more inclusive and democratic.

Every association has its own needs, so there is likely no one-size-fits-all answer. But any discussion about governance structure should weigh the pros and cons of various board sizes. Below, we present the key arguments for small and large boards, adapted from the conference debate.

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Small Boards Are Better

The case for small association boards is simple: It is not in our human nature to make effective, efficient decisions in groups larger than six or seven people.

Sociological research supports this claim, and the typical structure of large boards is the purest evidence of their ineffectiveness. The majority of large association boards form a smaller executive committee that carries the load in making decisions. This is the real board. Everyone else simply rubber-stamps its decisions, remaining disengaged from leadership duties and unaccountable for fulfilling their responsibility to plan for the organization's future. Psychologists call this behavior "social loafing," and surely loafing is hardly what your association's members expect from their volunteer leaders.

Some of the worst public failures of board oversight in recent memory—at Enron, the United Way, the University of Virginia, and the Smithsonian—resulted from lackadaisical boards with between 15 and 35 members. Meanwhile, two of the richest and most admired companies in the United States, Google and Apple, have boards of 10 or less. If those companies can be led by small boards, certainly your association can be, too.

The current business environment for associations demands agility. Boards that move slowly will not be able to navigate change in the 21st century. A small board is more flexible and allows for members to be engaged more quickly when the time calls for accelerated decisions.

Board size is also related to your association's capacity to develop new leaders. Each additional board seat demands training and orientation of another person, to say nothing of the basic need for natural leadership talent. How deep is the talent pool within your membership? If your board struggles to find capable volunteers to fill its seats, it is a sure sign of a governance system that does not know its own bounds. A small board ensures that leadership talent can be found and properly developed within your pool of volunteers.

Add to these social dynamics the very real concerns of administrative capacity. Make no mistake: The work that your association's staff puts into preparing for board meetings is highly demanding. Some experts estimate the average association allocates one month per year to board-meeting preparation. Of course, some of that prep work is necessary, but how much of it amounts to busywork? Your board should require only as much work as is absolutely necessary from its chief staff executive to support the board's decision-making processes. The rest of the staff's time and effort should be spent carrying out those decisions. A small board requires less care and feeding and gives the executive more time for execution.

The Debaters

These arguments are adapted from debate notes and comments graciously provided by:

  • Paul A. Markowski, CAE, executive vice president and CEO, American College of Chest Physicians
  • Nancy Green, FASAE, CAE, executive director, National Association for Gifted Children
  • Susan K. Neely, president and CEO, American Beverage Association
  • Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO, Tecker International LLC
  • Ann Turner, Ph.D., FASAE, CAE executive director, American Association for Laboratory Animal Science and the AALAS Foundation
  • Scott Steen, FASAE, CAE, CEO, American Forests
  • Elissa M. Myers, president, Advice & Consensus

Last, when you consider the size of your board, if nothing else, consider the value of your time. Surely you are busy. Do you want to spend your volunteer hours lost in the shuffle, waiting for the microphone, and listening to reports while you check your stocks? Doubtful. Instead, a small, efficient board will ensure that your voice matters and that your time will make a measurable impact on the future of your association.

Big Is Not Bad

Shrinking your board seems like a neat, tidy way to be rid of all your governance problems, doesn't it? Don't be fooled. There are no shortcuts to effective governance, and to focus on board size is an attempt to take the easy way out.

Effective leadership depends on who, not how many. Five idiots around a table is no more effective than 100 idiots around a table.

Three things matter most to a proficient governance system: its authority (decision-making power), process (how it goes about making decisions), and capacity (composition, time allotted for meeting, and access to information). These factors are equally important for boards both small and large, and they are the elements that must form the basis of any governance overhaul.

Participatory democracy is a core tenet of association governance, which requires that the many and diverse voices of an association's membership be heard and valued. Diversity in board composition is vital, and as a board decreases in size it becomes increasingly difficult to represent the full diversity of perspectives, ideas, backgrounds, and member types that is necessary to ensure sound decision making. A small board is also not without its own pitfalls in group dynamics. Without enough people to drive robust discussion, a small group turns to micromanagement. With power concentrated in just a few, members of a small board will run the association the same way they run their businesses and view staff as direct reports rather than partners. An oligarchy is no way to lead an association.

A larger board, however, spreads power more widely and evenly, and it reduces the potential influence of a rogue member with an agenda. The occasional bad board member—which even the best nominations process can never fully prevent—is far less potent in a group of 15 or 20 than in a group of five.

The administrative work to support a large board is not as daunting as it sounds; a small board requires much of the same baseline support, and an increase in size only marginally increases the demand on staff. Is it prohibitively harder to print 20 board books than it is to print 10? Certainly not.

But, even accepting the argument that a large board requires more support, remember that who and what and how are more important to effective governance than how many. If your association's membership composition, geographic distribution, or strategic direction demands a large board, then it should commit to properly supporting it, and its leaders must craft a structure and process that translate the full brain power of the board into coordinated action.

To back down from that challenge by lamenting board size is to abdicate responsibility for effectively leading your association. No one said effective governance would be easy. Resist the urge to run away from complexity. Instead, embrace it. Consider your association's members: Every day they face a world full of complexity and they tackle it head on. They should expect no less from their volunteer leaders.

Joe Rominiecki is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: jrominiecki@asaecenter.org

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