Board Governance Characteristics

 From Leading with Intent  (Part II) By Renae Oswald-Anderson, Partner

I recently shared with you some of the findings from BoardSource’s recently released Leading with Intent: 2017 Index of National Board Practices. More than 1,300 nonprofit organizations and 1,700 individuals (nonprofit execs and board chairs) responded to the survey.

I believe one of the characteristics of well run and high impact organizations is that the nonprofit leadership (both the board and executive) pay attention to the basics of solid, board governance. Best practices are recognized in these Board Basics:

Board size has decreased over the last 20 years with the average board size of 15 members. The size and structure of the board impacts how the board functions.  A board that is too large for the organization and its current organizational life cycle makes it difficult to engage in any meaningful work or build relationships of trust and honesty. On the other hand, a board may be too small if the organization doesn’t have the necessary expertise to advance the mission and make strategic and thoughtful decisions.

Use of standing committees has decreased over time. The 2017 survey found that the average number of standing committee is now 4.5; down from 6.6 committees in 1994 (a 32 percent decrease) when the survey project started. Standing committees have an important role if there is an established need and function within the organization. The most commonly reported standing committees are:

  • Executive Committee (76 percent of respondents)

  • Finance or finance/audit combined (76 percent)

  • Governance or Nominating (70 percent)

  • Fundraising (53 percent)

Time-limited special projects such as strategic planning is best served by a task force that will meet for a specific and focused period of time. Larger committee structures are more common in start- up organizations as volunteers are responsible for all facets of the organization’s life. As organizations mature and staff are brought on committee work becomes more strategic and less task oriented.

I believe one of the advantages of standing committees (with a clear purpose and charter) is that they offer a way to introduce the organization to potential board members. This is often the case on the fundraising and finance committee where a larger, broader base of opinions and skills is welcome. This way the potential board member can learn more about the organization, impact, and needs as well as see board members in action.  Establishing relationships with board members early on can lead to increased engagement down the road.

How do you measure up?

When it comes to these Board Basics: board size, use of standing committees, and term limits how do you think your organization is doing? How would you rate the quality of your board meetings? How about the role of the board chair? These are all important characteristics of how we are Leading with Intent. If you’re looking for some ways to strengthen your own Board Basics, feel free to contact me at:

To read the entire report go to