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Balancing Diverse Perspectives With Board Size

Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Guest Writers
The Standards
Boards & Governance
Jane Garthson
Image of a watercolour palette.

What is an appropriate board size?

The standard answer is, “It depends.” A board needs to be:

  • Small enough to make group decisions effectively;
  • Small enough to be affordable to bring together for the desired meeting frequency;
  • Large enough to get the board work done (officers, committee chairs, participation in advocacy and fundraising, time for new directors to get comfortable taking on officer and committee chair roles);
  • Large enough to bring diversity to the decision-making.

Another look into this last point is warranted as it is sometimes misunderstood. Research suggests decisions will generally be significantly better, though sometimes slower, if members of a group bring diverse, relevant life experiences, skills and knowledge. Variations in life experiences arise from differences in gender, race, ethnic and geographic origin, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and age. The types of experiences that are most relevant vary with the mission of the organization. For example, a charity dealing with violence against women would need their board to include women who have experienced violence.

What knowledge matters?

Two people playing chess in an office setting.

An association community might consist of members of a particular profession. Member perspectives will differ depending on their educational and professional background, including whether they are self-employed or employees, whether they practice in rural or urban areas, and how close they are to retirement. In Canada, national associations also often struggle to ensure they have good directors from across the nation.

Such association considerations are very different from a board that seeks diverse perspectives within a geographic community or ethnic group. The South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, for instance, may understand the terms “common region of origin” or “ancestral origin” differently than others. Having consulted with them in the past, I’ve learned that it did not simply mean a single family history, country, language, religion or political views. Similarly, organizations now seeking to address Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations relevant to their work cannot expect any one individual to be familiar with all the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

In addition to such considerations, every board requires skills and knowledge pertaining to financial and risk oversight. Also needed are skills and knowledge specific to the mission, which are obtained through diverse life experiences, as well as formal education. Often this knowledge comes from the community being served.

However, trying to fill every niche in a diversity matrix could leave you with a board of 65 (it has happened!) which is unlikely to be effective, engaged or able to make timely decisions. Most boards range from seven to fifteen, twenty at the largest. Smaller board sizes are more efficient but may not allow for full diversity at the decision-making table.

Seven Ways to Find Balance

What steps can be taken to help keep a functional board size? Here are seven ideas to consider, likely in combination:

  1. Establish one or a few advisory councils. Identify key groups the board needs to hear from frequently before making decisions that particularly affect them. Provide support for representatives of those groups to meet, in person or online, to consider draft proposals and to develop their own initiatives and questions. Ensure their input is provided to the board as is, without staff filters.
  2. Create defined space on the board for people from key groups. Many bylaws give authority to key stakeholders to appoint a person to the board; I’ve particularly seen this in faith-based organizations. In one organization I served, we created three advisory councils to help get member approval to take the organization from 50 directors to 13. Those councils each elected their own chair, and the new bylaws gave those chairs board seats. The new bylaws got approval because more members trusted that someone who understood them, and was one of them, would have a voice and vote at the smaller board table. Some cautions, learned the hard way:
    • Ensure the bylaws specify that those chairs are subject to the same maximum number of terms as other directors;
    • Provide director orientation and education that stresses that their role is in governing the organization, and not “representing” the council or speaking for everyone in that demographic.
  3. Open up the board meetings. Invite your community in. Those who wish to speak to an issue can let the Chair know in advance and, time permitting, invite comments during discussions. Creating the Future is an example of a charity that provides live video and monitors tweets during the meetings for useful suggestions. Anything that has to be private can be done “In Camera.”
  4. Create non-voting positions for selected or elected individuals who are entitled to participate in the meetings. This approach can be particularly useful for organizations serving young people. It not only gives them a voice before they are old enough for board service but also helps develop them as leaders and volunteers.
  5. Ensure appropriate external consultations have taken place for when an item comes forward for a decision. Include information about the nature of the consultations and explain how the voices of everyone relevant were respectively heard. For example, an online survey might work well for business professionals, but may not be suitable for newcomers to Canada, those learning English, or those without access to the Internet. For in-person consultations, consider how timing and location may impact participants.
  6. Make staff diversity a priority objective for the CEO or Executive Director. Imagine Canada’s E4 Standard demonstrates this. If the decision and discussion documents coming to the board have been prepared by a diverse staff team, it may improve the chances that diverse perspectives will have been considered in the analysis and recommendations. However, staff members are human and are vulnerable to bias, often towards protecting existing programs and services. Those are not always the ones that best serve the mission or those who are to benefit; boards exist to take that broader perspective. Staff diversity alone is not sufficient.
  7. Recruit directors who fill multiple needs. Never ask someone onto a board who only brings one key skill or is only from a particular demographic. Every director needs passion, board-level skills and relevant experience.

Given the propensity of the nonprofit sector to innovate, there must be readers with success stories to share about bringing diverse voices to board decision-making. Share your stories in the comments below!


About the Author

Jane GarthsonJane Garthson provides Interim Executive and leadership services to Canadian nonprofits. Jane is an honours graduate in Voluntary Sector Leadership, York University, author of chapters in peer-reviewed international books and Secretary, Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust. Past roles include Commissioner, Ontario Racing Commission; Interim Executive Director of a charity and of a sports federation, and Treasurer of a national charity.

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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