Ideal Board Size: A Question of Balance

A question that I am frequently asked as I travel around and meet with the boards of directors of many orchestras is, "what is the ideal size for a board?" One would like to think that's a simple question, but it is anything but.
Clearly the size and complexity of the organization is one big factor. But let's focus, for the sake of this discussion, on small and mid-sized orchestras, which make up by far the greatest number of orchestras in America.

There is a recently growing school of opinion among some who work with nonprofit boards that smaller is better. But that depends on what you mean by "small." If you mean twelve to fifteen members, I fear I must disagree--at least if the board is responsible for fund raising (as opposed to some civic boards or school boards, which are there solely to govern).

The problem is that there is an irresolvable tension between the functions of an orchestra board. For governance, smaller probably is better. After all, if America's largest corporations can be governed by boards of fifteen, why can't symphony orchestras? (Yes, this is the place where you may insert a chuckle as we think about the success of much corporate governance in recent years.)  For governance purposes, the larger the board, the less efficient and more messy. But for fund raising and advocacy, the other two functions of an orchestra board in its community, larger is better.

So in the end, a balance has to be struck. And I find that for most orchestras, except perhaps those with the very smallest budgets, a board of between 25 and 35 seems to work best. I know that some governance specialists will shriek in horror, and ask why you can't make two boards, putting those with the capability of giving or raising significant sums of money on the "advisory" board or "honorary" board or "board of overseers," giving it little or no actual governing authority or responsibility, and having it meet perhaps once or twice a year. Based on my 42 years of experience of being on and working with nonprofit boards, the answer is simple: The more involved people are with the actual governing of the orchestra, the more generous they are likely to be--both in their own gifts and in the efforts they put into fund raising. They have a greater understanding of the needs and workings of the orchestra, and a much stronger emotional connection to it. Anyone who doesn't see the relationship between that emotional connection and financial contributions has not been working closely from the inside with orchestra boards.

If you accept my theory about size, then the question is how to ensure that a board with somewhere around 30 people on it functions effectively and efficiently, without wasting staff time in managing the board and/or trustees' time in attending boring, useless meetings. Managing a board is one of the most important parts of organizational leadership--and it must be practiced by executive directors, board chairs, and governance committee chairs. It cannot be a passive activity, nor can it be done on automatic pilot or with little thought. It requires discipline and the establishment of an appropriate board culture.

When I am asked (as I often am) what are the key ingredients of a successful orchestra, my answer is always the same: Number one is a strong board. Every other key ingredient will follow that. Every orchestra board member (and certainly every board chair and executive director) should read Lowell Noteboom's Good Governance in Economically Challenging Times. (I think it is misnamed, because what it advises should be practiced in economically good times as well.) Available on the website of the League of American Orchestras, it is a thoughtful, intelligently reasoned treatise on how boards should operate.

For something shorter, this space next week will offer a few of my own specific thoughts in this area.

April 24, 2009 4:10 PM | | Comments (1)



I agree 100%. I used to be a fan of the small board, especially after reading Carver's works on boards. But I've changed my mind radically after reading FORCES FOR GOOD : THE SIX PRACTICES OF HIGH-IMPACT NONPROFITS by Crutchfield and Grant. All of the organizations they profiled had boards of from 20 to 40 people. "Perhaps this is because high-impact nonprofits must engage so many sakeholders, both internal and external, to hve impct. Theyneed broad boards that represent a range of skills, backgrounds, and social networks." Something work thinking about as we become more and more concerned with impact.


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