Volunteer Leadership: Small Association Boards Are Better

The argument in favor of smaller volunteer leader association boards.

The case for small association boards is simple: It is not in our human nature to make effective, efficient decisions in groups larger than six or seven people.

Sociological research supports this claim, and the typical structure of large boards is the purest evidence of their ineffectiveness. The majority of large association boards form a smaller executive committee that carries the load in making decisions. This is the real board. Everyone else simply rubber-stamps its decisions, remaining disengaged from leadership duties and unaccountable for fulfilling their responsibility to plan for the organization’s future. Psychologists call this behavior “social loafing,” and surely loafing is hardly what your association’s members expect from their volunteer leaders.

Your board should require only as much work as is absolutely necessary from its chief staff executive to support the board’s decision-making processes.

Some of the worst public failures of board oversight in recent memory—at Enron, the United Way, the University of Virginia, and the Smithsonian—resulted from lackadaisical boards with between 15 and 35 members. Meanwhile, two of the richest and most admired companies in the United States, Google and Apple, have boards of 10 or less. If those companies can be led by small boards, certainly your association can be, too.

The current business environment for associations demands agility. Boards that move slowly will not be able to navigate change in the 21st century. A small board is more flexible and allows for members to be engaged more quickly when the time calls for accelerated decisions.

Board size is also related to your association’s capacity to develop new leaders. Each additional board seat demands training and orientation of another person, to say nothing of the basic need for natural leadership talent. How deep is the talent pool within your membership? If your board struggles to find capable volunteers to fill its seats, it is a sure sign of a governance system that does not know its own bounds. A small board ensures that leadership talent can be found and properly developed within your pool of volunteers.

Add to these social dynamics the very real concerns of administrative capacity. Make no mistake: The work that your association’s staff puts into preparing for board meetings is highly demanding. Some experts estimate the average association allocates one month per year to board-meeting preparation. Of course, some of that prep work is necessary, but how much of it amounts to busywork? Your board should require only as much work as is absolutely necessary from its chief staff executive to support the board’s decision-making processes. The rest of the staff’s time and effort should be spent carrying out those decisions. A small board requires less care and feeding and gives the executive more time for execution.

Last, when you consider the size of your board, if nothing else, consider the value of your time. Surely you are busy. Do you want to spend your volunteer hours lost in the shuffle, waiting for the microphone, and listening to reports while you check your stocks? Doubtful. Instead, a small, efficient board will ensure that your voice matters and that your time will make a measurable impact on the future of your association.

(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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