What’s the Right Size Board for Your Association?

Nonprofit associations make the world a better place, but they require extensive hands-on oversight and expertise to deliver on their mission. Association board members play a crucial role in driving the organization’s mission and vision, overseeing everything from voting in board officers’ elections to making strategic decisions.

There’s no question that board members are a must-have for any non-profit, both from a legal and operational perspective. However, many associations wonder how many board members they need. Having too few could hurt the association’s ability to serve its stakeholders, while an oversized board can become too unwieldy.

Associations must weigh their needs and choose the best board size based on their members and mission. Still, there’s no magic number; the ideal board size for a non-profit association varies depending on several factors. In this guide, we’ll explain the synergy between governance and board size, offer simple criteria for choosing your association board structure, and share best practices to determine the right board member count for your association.

How Board Size Affects Organizational Effectiveness

Staffing a non-profit association with the right number of board members ensures the organization can fulfill its responsibilities. A well-sized board improves decision-making processes, provides diverse perspectives, and contributes to organizational success. Understaffing or overstaffing, on the other hand, will make an organization disorganized and inefficient.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how many board members a non-profit should have, a standard non-profit board size recommendation is between five and 15 members. Only you can determine the best number for your association, which often comes down to:

  • Membership size: The size of your board should be proportional to the size of your members, stakeholders, or population you serve. For example, a smaller organization could easily get by with five members, while a larger organization may need the full 15.
  • Organizational mission: Your mission will likely require specific, specialized expertise. You may need a larger board if you have a more complex mission.
  • Location: Logistics matter. Geography affects how often the board can meet and how easily members can interact with it. Video conferencing software has made this less of an issue, but if your organization relies on face-to-face meetings, it’s an important consideration.

Small vs. Large Boards—What’s Best?

Both small and large boards have their pros and cons. Considering these differences is important to determine what works best for your association.

Small boards (five to eight members) often have less red tape, which allows them to be more agile. They can reach a consensus more quickly, making them a good fit for organizations that need to move fast. However, because of their smaller size, small boards have limited resources and a reduced number of perspectives. Board member burnout is also more common.

Larger boards (nine to 15 members) tend to have more diverse perspectives and specialized expertise. Because of the number of board members, they may take more time to make decisions but often arrive at more well-thought-out plans than smaller boards. However, there’s a risk of the Bystander Effect here, where each member assumes someone else is handling important tasks. This lack of coordination and personal accountability could lead to bottlenecks and missed opportunities.

How To Determine the Best Board Size for Your Association

Determining the right board member count for your association requires balancing the need for diversity of experience, resources, and quick decision-making. There’s no ideal board size for non-profit associations, but you can determine a number by considering these factors.

Regulatory Requirements

Your board must meet legal requirements, at a minimum. Some state laws require a certain number of board members. For example, Minnesota requires all non-profit boards to have at least three members.

Three is still quite small, so the legal minimum in your area likely won’t be enough to run the association effectively. This is a crucial consideration to keep your association compliant, so if you aren’t sure what the bare minimum is for a board, your local regulations will provide that number.

Organizational Complexity or Structure

Does your organization have a more intricate structure or complex operations? If so, you likely need a larger board with a range of expertise. But if your organization is relatively small and straightforward, you’ll likely function more efficiently with a smaller board.

Member Representation

Every board needs to represent its members or constituents. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) are essential for ensuring the board represents the voices of all members.

When determining your association board structure, consider:

  • Diversity: Strive for a board composition with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
  • Membership types: Ensure that different kinds of members are represented on the board to address the needs and concerns of all segments of your association.
  • Location: If your association has a broad geographic reach, include board members from different regions to represent local interests and issues.

If your board lacks diversity, you may need to create requirements mandating a certain number of seats for members who meet specific criteria. Finding a qualified board with these requirements takes more work, but it will ensure fair representation.

Five Best Practices for Determining Board Sizes

Selecting your board is just the first step. Follow these best practices to maintain your optimal association board structure.

  1. Regularly Review and Adjust

Associations are never free of their obligation to provide members with an effective board. Regular assessments help associations identify when changes are needed to maintain the board’s effectiveness. Periodically review your board size to ensure it meets the changing needs of your association and its members.

Priorities, membership demographics, and outside conditions change over time, and you may need to change your board member count to reflect that. For example, a sudden increase in membership would likely require inviting more people to your board.

  1. Conduct Board Evaluations

How is the board performing? Measuring the board’s effectiveness is one of the best ways to understand whether you need more or fewer board members—or a different mix of expertise or demographics. Regular evaluations identify the board’s strengths and areas for improvement, ensuring it remains as efficient as possible.

  1. Plan Ahead

Few non-profits stay the same over time. You need a roadmap for future growth and member representation, including plans for board members. For example, maybe your board isn’t very diverse today, but you have a five-year plan to improve DEIB and geographic representation.

  1. Have Policies in Place

Every association needs policies governing not only board member responsibilities and behavior but also their numbers. Establish policies for tenure and diversity requirements to maintain the most dynamic board possible. These clear policies invite fresh perspectives to the board over time, helping you keep up with the times and retain more members.

  1. Invite the Right People to the Table

Size is important, but the expertise and quality of your board members matter, too. Having the right people in leadership roles is critical to effective board performance, so you invite the best possible candidates to the table.

According to the ASAE Foundation, 70% of associations create a nominating committee, and 77% have some kind of candidate screening process. Partner with a firm like Survey & Ballot Systems to manage the nomination process. Create digital nomination forms, personalized candidate journeys, and a dedicated website with SBS’s hands-on expertise. It’s the best way to encourage diverse board member applications without disrupting your staff’s regular duties.

Build a Board That Drives Success

Agility, expertise, and diversity are just a few of the many qualities that make a successful non-profit association board. While a board of five to 15 members is most common, there’s no “correct” answer. Ultimately, your association has to weigh its mission and member needs to choose the right mix of board representatives. By focusing on both the quantity and quality of board members, your association will improve its decision-making capabilities and better serve its members and stakeholders.

Effective board nominations and elections are crucial to building an engaged board, but managing these processes internally is challenging. Learn how Survey & Ballot Systems supports associations with convenient, secure, and fair online elections.