by Neel Hajra, President/CEO

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Thanks to Michael Galpert

A recent local survey showed that 40% of nonprofits in the area plan to downsize their staffs by the end of 2010. I’m sure this is reflective of national trends. Add in the fact that 40% of local organizations already downsized in 2009, and we’ve got a downsizing revolution on our hands! Weeeee, are we having fun yet?

There’s plenty of wisdom out there on downsizing staff, but why isn’t anyone talking about downsizing boards? (well, okay, a few are at least making passing mention).  Let’s debunk some of the reasons:

  • “Board Members Are Free”: No, they’re not. Boards take a lot of care and feeding (and if they don’t,  you have an engagement or “rubber stamp” problem). Unless you have a hands-on working board (i.e., one where trustees act as volunteer staff), a smaller board might help reduce the workload for a downsized staff.
  • “Boards Should Be Big”: No, they shouldn’t. Best practice advice varies, but many agree (including me) that a board larger than the teens usually takes you down the path of diminishing returns in terms of coordination, engagement, and responsiveness. In tough times, you want a board that’s as agile as your downsized staff.
  • “Feelings Will Be Hurt”: Yes, they will. Welcome to management. Are hurt feelings more important than good governance? Plus, maybe feelings won’t be hurt: a local nonprofit trustee recently commented on the tough economic times by saying “I didn’t sign up for this” – maybe some trustees would welcome an escape path!
  • “It’s a Way to Engage Important Community Members/Fundraisers”: Yes it is, but so are committees, task forces, advisory councils, and so on. It’s time we all stopped lumping together governance with other forms of volunteerism and advocacy – a great fundraiser or networker might be an ineffective board member.
  • “We Need These Trustees More Than Ever”: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Trustees may have been recruited for an expertise or function that’s not even relevant to your nonprofit any more. Just as you assess each staff person’s value to your organization’s mission, you should do the same with each trustee.

A quick and easy way to assess the need to shrink or grow your board is to do a Board Composition Analysis. These are often used for recruiting new board members, but can also be applied to a “right-sizing” (sorry, I couldn’t resist that cheesy term!). This analysis simply maps your board assets, and helps illuminate who really brings value to a board. For example:

Skills/Knowledge Trustee 1 Trustee 2 Trustee 3 Etc…
Accounting X X
Admin/Management X

(shameless plug: For $40 NEW offers a bundle of 120+ downloadable governance tools and documents, including a Composition Analysis template)

There’s no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to nonprofit boards, but let’s take off the blinders and include the board in the downsizing equation!