Shrink to Fit: Why One Board Cut Its Size in Half

The board knew it. The CEO knew it. ­Question was, what were they going to do about it?

For many years, the Association of YMCA Professionals (AYP) had a frustrating governance structure. Its 35 board members were elected on a chapter basis, which helped ensure geographical diversity but also threatened to undermine the board’s focus: Were they looking out for the good of the organization or just that of their particular constituencies? “It wasn’t explicitly, ‘everybody’s paying attention to their own little kingdom,’ but there was a conversation around what’s going to get us the best bang for our buck among leadership,” says AYP National Executive Director/CEO Donna French Dunn, CAE.

I’ve done board training where, when the attorney was finished, I’ve had people say, ‘I wish I’d known this before I said yes.’ 

Dunn also sensed a lack of engagement. She sometimes struggled to get a quorum for conference calls. “When you have a board of 35, [the thinking is] ‘Somebody else will step up’ or ‘somebody else will be on the conference call, I won’t be missed,’ ” she says.

Eventually, the board decided to launch a task force to investigate better governance models. In March 2011 it came back with two recommendations: to move from a chapter-based to an at-large governance structure, and to reduce the size of the board.

Today, AYP has a 17-person board, though its newly approved bylaws allow it to be as small as 12. The new structure was implemented earlier this year, and Dunn says she noticed an immediate difference.

“I have more board engagement than I have ever had in terms of commitment to the organization, commitment to participating in work groups and task forces and activities,” Dunn says. “There’s an energy to it now that it didn’t have previously.”

Dunn is a fan of smaller boards—she says her favorite one to work with was a nine-person board at a previous association—but notes that size wasn’t the sole reason for improvement. The decision to remove standing committees also helped reduce a sense of drift and disinterest. “Now people know the duration of activities and what they’re signing up for,” she says. “That’s made a big difference in engagement.”

Dunn considers herself lucky in that she didn’t have to press the board to rethink its structure, and that it came to that decision on its own. But she does recommend board orientation to help elected leaders become aware of exactly what it is they signed up for. Once board members comprehend the scope of their duties, they may be more compelled to proceed more strategically. “I’ve done board training where, when the attorney was finished, I’ve had people say, ‘I wish I’d known this before I said yes,’ ” she says.

Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!