Dream Teams: Bringing boards and staff together for organizational success – October 11-21, 2016

October 13 & 14: The Work of the Board

Photo credit: Jiro Ose

Now that you’ve given some thought to what your dream team would look like, your current situation, and strategies to build or improve your board, let’s move ahead to focus on the work of the board.

*** Please click on the links below to open or collapse sections ***

▼ What is the best size for your board and why?

What’s an ideal size for a board of directors and how does it compare to the size of your board?

There really is no ideal size for a board of directors. Generally you want the board to be big enough to incorporate a diversity of perspectives and small enough to facilitate active participation and effective decision making. We recommend 9-13 members for optimal performance.


Check out what happens when your board is too small or too big and the pros and cons of large and small boards of directors:

Leaders Who Govern, Composition and Competencies (see pages 2:1-3)

Q4 – What is the best size for your board and why? [click on the question to respond in the forum]
Given the profile of board members you have and those you need, what size does your board need to be to achieve optimal performance?

▼ What changes would you make in your current board structure?

How should the board be structured?

Boards are generally structured into smaller work groups—committees and task forces–that accomplish tasks that need to be done outside board meetings. They do the majority of the board´s work and allow the board to focus on the big picture and on decisions that need to be made.

Standing committees are used for permanent tasks.

Task forces are formed for very specific tasks that can be accomplished within a specific time frame and should be related to the organization’s strategic direction.

Organizational work groups combine board and staff to work on issues that are usually part of the staff’s responsibility and often report to staff.

Some organizations also have advisory councils that provide advice and support to the organization, but have no legal or formal responsibilities.

When it comes to structuring your board, it´s important to recognize that each organization is unique and that there is no “one-size-fits-all”. A general rule of thumb is to be simple and let structure follow strategy. Below is a typical board structure.

Consider these guidelines for structuring your board:

  1. Keep a simple committee structure.
  2. Minimize the number of standing committees; use more ad hoc committees and time-limited task forces.
  3. Align the board structure with the organization´s strategies.
  4. Avoid creation of committees that mirror the organization´s structure (e.g. program), as staff is already doing the job.
  5. Ensure all committees have a chair, members and charter.
  6. Recruit non-board members to serve on board committees as appropriate and create organizational committees or work groups (composed of board members and staff) that report to staff.


Leaders Who Govern, Use of Subgroups (see pages 3:3-6)

Q5 – What changes would you make in your current board structure? [click on the question to respond in the forum]
Take a few minutes to reflect on the committee structure of your board. Think about whether any of the work of the committees can be done as a task force or whether any committee mimics the work of staff or whether any work can be tackled by a member or members of an advisory team. What changes would you make in your current board structure to make it simple and strategic?

▼ What strategies can be used to make board meetings more effective?

How should board meetings be organized to make them more effective?

If not carefully planned, board meetings can be long and ineffective. The first step in assuring effective board meetings is preparation of the agenda, which should be done together by the board Chair and Executive Director/CEO. The following tips can help you prepare the agenda:

  • Clearly state the objectives (1 or 2) for each meeting
  • Focus on strategic issues rather than administrative detail and reports (research by the Independent Sector shows that 70% of all non-profit board meetings are past-focused)
  • Relate specific agenda items to the larger goals of the organization
  • Flip the agenda – open with new business and put in question form
  • Set time limits for each agenda item. Provide ample time for discussion
  • Is the board discussing, giving advice, or making a decision? Mark each item accordingly.
  • Use consent agendas, which are proposals that require board action but not discussion or debate, e.g. meeting minutes, dates of meetings
  • Committees should report only when they need guidance or action from the board or when they have completed an assignment. Written reports that serve as updates do not need to be presented aloud. They should be presented as part of the consent agenda in advance of the meeting.

Once the agenda is prepared, consider these strategies and tools to improve the effectiveness of meetings:

  • Evaluate each board meeting and use the result to improve consecutive meetings
  • Plan ahead-use a themed calendar to set the dates and key agenda items for the year
  • Develop a board meeting attendance policy


Refer to these strategies in Leaders Who Govern (LWG) to improve the effectiveness of your meetings:

LWG, Continuous Improvement (see strategies to improve the effectiveness of your meetings on pages 15:8-10)
LWG – Management Oversight (see consent agendas and assessing board performance on pages 16:6-8)
LWG – Member Recruitment (see board meeting attendance policy on pages 17:16-17)
LWG, Themed Meeting Calendars (see value of an annual calendar on page 26:2)

Video: How to Run an Effective Nonprofit Board Meeting, Stanford Graduate School of Business (03:42)

Q6 – What strategies can be used to make board meetings more effective? [click on the question to respond in the forum]
Boards can do a lot to improve meetings. What strategies can be used to make board meetings more effective?

▼ Summary

Today concludes Part 2 of our LeaderNet Dream Team seminar where we are discussing governance of organizations, with a focus on boards of directors/trustees. During Part 2, discussions have centered on the Work of the Board, that is, board size, committee structure and board meetings, summarized below.Board size – participants seem to agree that a board size of between 5-11 board members would be ideal. Duya (Mongolia) also made the point that board size depends on the size of the organization—she recommends 5 to 7 for small local organizations and 7 to 9 for national or international organizations. Evelyne (Haiti) added that the number of board members also depends on the range of skills, competencies, knowledge, and attitudes needed for the board to be able to contribute to the organization´s strategic direction. Noah (Uganda) has reminded us to pay attention to the need to meet a quorum when determining board size.

Committee Structure – what participants highlighted in this discussion is that board structure should be based on the strategies of the organization. Each organization is different. Painda (Afghanistan), who is starting a Master of Public Health program at Kandahar University, referred to committees on 1) curricula and student affairs 2) research and exams and 3) advocacy and job finding for our graduates. In contrast, Karine (Armenia), who founded a disabled people´s organization, referred to committees on strategic planning, fundraising, advocacy quality and governance. I encouraged her, and encourage all of you, to consider creating task forces for activities that have start and end dates with a specific deliverable, such as a strategic plan. Missing from the discussion was the importance of Finance and Audit Committees, responsible for oversight of organizational finances and approval of the annual audit.

Board meetings – many good recommendations were offered by Painda (Afghanistan), Rosy (India), Iniobong (Nigeria), Autry (Guyana), Lakachew (Kenya) and Noah (Uganda) to improve the effectiveness of board meetings, such as :

  • Use of a well-planned agenda
    • jointly developed by the board chair and ED
    • sent well in advance of the meeting together with supporting materials

that includes

    • sufficient time allocated for meaningful discussion
    • important items at the beginning
    • review of progress on actions taken or recommendations made at past meetings.
  • Board chairperson who is skilled at conducting meetings and can ensure time management and that all board members participate and contribute
  • Meeting documentation (minute-taking and sharing of the minutes)

We hope you are enjoying the “Dream Teams” seminar! On Monday we will start Part 3 on the relationship between the board and the CEO/ED. The seminar remains open on Saturday and Sunday, so please feel free to continue discussions.

And with that, I will now turn the facilitation baton over to my colleagues Helena and Susan.

All the best,
Karen Johnson Lassner, on behalf of all “Dream Team” seminar moderators