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How Large a Board? NYS Museums and Heritage Organizations Weigh In


For the last month, I’ve had a poll running on this blog asking folks to note the size of their nonprofit boards.  The overwhelming number of voters (80%) chose the 11-20 member category.  Ten percent have a board with ten or fewer members and 10% have a board with 21-35 members.

This mirrors the results for the 2006 annual reports submitted to the NYS Education Department by chartered museums and historical societies.

Of 801 institutions reporting boards of trustees, the average board size was 12.   Forty-one institutions reported board with more than 25 people, ranging from 26 members to a high of 63.

In prior years, the number is almost the same.  In 1998, the average size was 11.

Paul Stewart, who serves on the board of the Albany, NY-based Capital District Underground Railroad Workshop, wrote, “Some organizations seem to like small boards and some large boards. What is the difference in what they accomplish? What other dynamics are there?  …it is clear that having the minimum actually hampers what you can accomplish. I'd like to get a sense of what those with larger boards can do and the difficulties they encounter with larger groups of people. I know from my own experience that it causes quorum problems, you experience the drag of those who don't step to the plate, and when some board members promise to do things and don't follow through it can be very painful.”

It seems to me that the size of an organization’s board ought to reflect and support the organization’s mission and vision and be large enough to oversee or carry out the strategic plan.  A statewide or national nonprofit may very well have a far larger board than one serving a highly focused service or service area. 

For example, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network is a regional museum service organization whose board currently stands at 22, but has plans to grow it to 24.  “We like a board this size since we want regional representation as well as varied professional expertise and advocacy skills to reflect work in a varied, broad museum and history community,” write Director Tema Harnik.  “Small committees seem to function well, in lieu of a smaller board-- it's in committee work, discussion, and recommendation that I see the most participation and "individual accountability."  Trustees like to step up to the plate when they can offer their ideas, not just listen to reports at a Board meeting.”

Paul’s questions about size affecting effectiveness touch on basic issues of group dynamics and group structure – people coming together to get work done have great potential, but their effectiveness as a team requires active planning, management, and communication on the part of the board and staff leadership.  The larger the group, the more necessary these three ingredients become.

Graham Millar of the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society and Museum sums it up best: “Our board is large enough to share tasks, small enough so that we don't have to beat the bushes for reluctant board members.” 

Photo: gavel by TalkLeft, flickr 

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