PMA Consulting, LLC

Innovation Series: Governance – Ideal Nonprofit Board Size


When it comes to the topic of governance, it’s the question PMA is asked most often:

“So, what’s the ideal board size anyways?”

It is such an easy question, yet it has no easy answers.  A quick Google search shows that it is a question on the minds of many nonprofit professionals. Resources like BoardSource, Philanthropy Journal and ArtsJournal have all weighed in over the last few years with very well-thought out responses.  The typical answer involves a flexible size, and the list of pros and cons on the BoardSource article are well stated for each of small vs. large boards.

As a part of PMA’s own 990 research for the Innovation Series, our researchers culled through recent tax forms for 150 randomly-selected organizations located in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. These researchers were seeking a data set encompassing of a wide variety of missions (arts, human services, education, etc.) as well as asset levels.   One of the easier data points to gather was board size, which is found under Part I, Line 3, as IRS requests “number of voting members of the governing body.”  Of the 127 organizations that reported for FY10, the average board size across all of these organizations worked out to be 15, with a median of 14.

So there it is – an answer!  But what does it mean?  And how does it continue to change, even in just the last year or two?

As PMA shared earlier this month, the United Way of Central Carolinas underwent a sizable board resizing, shrinking from nearly 70 members to just 24 in 2013.  Most organizations in the Charlotte region and beyond haven’t undergone change quite that dramatic, but there does appear to be a movement toward streamlining, retooling and reshaping the board of directors.

For some, this resizing is truly a strategic move.  For others, it is a reaction to board fatigue and the failure to develop a solid pipeline of board talent.  PMA suggests that decreasing the size of your board due to lack of interest, stewardship or connectivity is not a good solution.  Too often, the folks leaving are the gatekeepers and donors, leaving behind the passionate, hands-on board members who are critical to success but not much help when it comes to fundraising. So while boards are shrinking all over Mecklenburg County, make sure your board is intentional with an eye toward increasing engagement.

In the spirit of innovation, here are three more creative ideas for your board:

  1. Split an Advisory Board from the Governing Board – PMA has encountered this idea with increasing frequency.  Rather than jettison those who are too busy for full board membership, repurpose them. Those unwilling to make a commitment to meeting monthly for in-depth discussions may be more useful as a member of an advisory board that meets less frequently and is primarily focused on friendraising and fundraising. While Executive Directors tend to see this as complicating (“now I have two boards to worry about!?”), in practice PMA has seen it address burn-out while maintaining the bottom line.
  2. Blow Up the Development Committee – That’s right, disband it! What may seem like a revolutionary concept to some was embraced by the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. As recognized by the NC Center for Nonprofits, “the Development Committee of the board was eliminated, recognizing that all board members are accountable for helping to build relationships, engage new audiences, and bring new funding opportunities to the Theatre.”  Look around to see how your peers are differentiating themselves and their development groups. Fundraising is the role of every board member, but the presence of a Development Committee may give the false sense of it being someone else’s responsibility.
  3. Explore a National or Global Board Member Prospect – Demonstrating broader buy-in, particularly with content leaders at the statewide or national level, is a good way to demonstrate that your board views itself with a different lens. How can an organization tackling hunger in Mecklenburg County be informed by an individual working in the developing world?  Can connections in Raleigh or Washington D.C. be a positive for your organization’s mission? A different perspective can reinvigorate board members and staff around the organization’s core mission and values.

For more information on innovation in the nonprofit sector, visit our blog every Tuesday. If you have any questions or want more information, then contact our Managing Director, Josh Jacobson, at