Volunteer Leadership: Big Association Boards Are Not Bad

The argument in favor of bigger volunteer leader association boards.

Shrinking your board seems like a neat, tidy way to be rid of all your governance problems, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled. There are no shortcuts to effective governance, and to focus on board size is an attempt to take the easy way out.

Effective leadership depends on who, not how many. Five idiots around a table is no more effective than 100 idiots around a table.

A larger board spreads power more widely and evenly, and it reduces the potential influence of a rogue member with an agenda.

Three things matter most to a proficient governance system: its authority (decision-making power), process (how it goes about making decisions), and capacity (composition, time allotted for meeting, and access to information). These factors are equally important for boards both small and large, and they are the elements that must form the basis of any governance overhaul.

Participatory democracy is a core tenet of association governance, which requires that the many and diverse voices of an association’s membership be heard and valued. Diversity in board composition is vital, and as a board decreases in size it becomes increasingly difficult to represent the full diversity of perspectives, ideas, backgrounds, and member types that is necessary to ensure sound decision making. A small board is also not without its own pitfalls in group dynamics.

Without enough people to drive robust discussion, a small group turns to micromanagement. With power concentrated in just a few, members of a small board will run the association the same way they run their businesses and view staff as direct reports rather than partners. An oligarchy is no way to lead an association.

A larger board, however, spreads power more widely and evenly, and it reduces the potential influence of a rogue member with an agenda. The occasional bad board member—which even the best nominations process can never fully prevent—is far less potent in a group of 15 or 20 than in a group of five.

The administrative work to support a large board is not as daunting as it sounds; a small board requires much of the same baseline support, and an increase in size only marginally increases the demand on staff. Is it prohibitively harder to print 20 board books than it is to print 10? Certainly not.

But, even accepting the argument that a large board requires more support, remember that who and what and how are more important to effective governance than how many. If your association’s membership composition, geographic distribution, or strategic direction demands a large board, then it should commit to properly supporting it, and its leaders must craft a structure and process that translate the full brain power of the board into coordinated action.

To back down from that challenge by lamenting board size is to abdicate responsibility for effectively leading your association. No one said effective governance would be easy. Resist the urge to run away from complexity. Instead, embrace it. Consider your association’s members: Every day they face a world full of complexity and they tackle it head on. They should expect no less from their volunteer leaders.

(Roman Marzinger/Glow Images)

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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