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Big, Small or In-Between: Your Nonprofit’s Board Size is Up to You

Wooden cutout figures on a table. One group has three figrues standing on top of each other and another group has six standing on top of each other.

When a nonprofit is new, it may struggle to find an adequate number of board members. But as it grows, its board is also likely to grow — sometimes, to an unwieldy size. The question is: How many directors does your organization need to effectively pursue its mission?

Perks and Drawbacks

Both small and large boards come with perks and drawbacks. For example, smaller boards allow for easier communication and greater cohesiveness among the members. Scheduling is less complicated, and meetings tend to be shorter and more focused. Several studies have indicated that group decision making is most effective when the group contains five to eight people. But boards on the small side of this range may lack the experience or diversity necessary to facilitate healthy deliberation and debate. What’s more, members may feel overworked and burn out easily.

Burnout is less likely with a large board where each member shoulders a smaller burden, including when it comes to fundraising. Large boards may include more perspectives and a broader base of professional expertise — for example, financial advisors, community leaders and former clients. On the other hand, larger boards can lead to disengagement because some members may not feel they have sufficient responsibilities or a voice in discussions and decisions. Larger boards also require more staff support.

No Ideal Number

State law typically specifies the minimum number of directors a not-for-profit must have. But so long as your organization fulfills that requirement, it’s up to you to determine how many total board members you need. So if you’re assembling a board or thinking about resizing, consider such issues as director responsibilities, desirable expertise, fundraising demands and your nonprofit’s staffing resources.

You may have heard that it’s wise to have an uneven number of board members to avoid 50/50 votes. In such a case, though, the chair can break a tie. Moreover, an issue that produces a 50/50 split usually deserves more discussion.

Good Governance

Increasing the size of a board typically is easier than trimming it. Asking members to resign can be awkward, plus you may need to change your bylaws to shrink your board. In general, it’s best to set a range for board size — rather than a precise number — in your bylaws. For more about nonprofit governance best practices, contact us.

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