A client recently asked me an excellent question:

I know of an organization that has a large board. It seems they do it so that they can invite potential donors to be on the board. It seems more or less honorary, they don’t get involved much. Should we look at making our board larger so that we can invite large donors on?

It’s a great question. We’re having a good discussion about it over at 501MissionPlace. It hits at the core of a question all of us are constantly struggling with: how do we get more people to notice us and feel a part of what we’re doing?

If I were asked last year if a nonprofit should have a large board, I would’ve flat out said “No.” But with my current experience of being on the working board of our local United Way has changed that. There are lots of committees and there is a lot of work to do. Having those responsibilities spread over more people is helpful.

But the board sets the agenda for the nonprofit. The board stewards the mission and has the authority to redirect that if appropriate. We’ve all heard of nonprofit boards that have changed focus despite the founders’ wishes (MADD, Habitat for Humanity, Feed the Children, etc.).

Don’t invite anyone to the board until you’re comfortable living with their governance decisions. You might think they’re just a token member, but they may turn out to be incredibly engaged. Make sure it’s engagement you’d welcome. The only way to find out is to get to know them and to have some form of vetting process in place.

Many boards require people to be committee members before being considered for a board position.

Other Ways to Involve Donors & Prospects

Here are some other ideas of groups you can invite influencers or potential donors to:

  • The Development Committee
    Most boards allow non-board members to be members of committees. So you could start a development committee for your board whose sole purpose is to help you strategize fundraising. The nice thing about this is you don’t have to beat around the bush. The committee meets to talk fundraising.

    Why would anyone join the development committee? Often it’s because they know that this is a route to becoming a board member. Since this is a standing committee, others will be attracted to it because they can influence a cause they champion without having to deal with being on the board. There really are people that enjoy fundraising!

    Why would a nonprofit want a development committee? It’s wonderful knowing that people outside of the immediate orbit of your organization are thinking about raising money for you. They can also help make suggestions that make how you approach raising funds and when you do it much more effective.

  • A “Task Force”
    You can always set up a “Task Force” for some aspect of your work. Any aspect. If you know of a person who has the skills that will help you move a project forward, asking them to join a task force can attractive. These are very flexible and don’t need to be overly formal.

    Why would anyone join a task force? Because task forces by their very nature end. They don’t go on forever. Many people like knowing there’s a beginning and an ending to their involvement. Others like the specificity of the “task.” Rather than all aspects of fundraising, a task force may focus just on the annual auction.

    Why would a nonprofit want a task force? They’re easy to form and easy to disband. And it’s sometimes nice to offer someone a “position” when you’re asking them for involvement. It can also be a terrific way to get top-notch advice about any part of your organization.

  • An Advisory Committee
    Advisory Committees can be an effective way to engage people of influence. You can approach the people you respect and tell them “You’re a leader in this field/community/cause. We’d like to ask you to join our advisory committee to help ensure we’re making the most effective use of our resources and opportunities.”

    Why would anyone join an advisory committee? An Advisory Committee can seem more prestigious than a development committee or a task force. It’s flattering to be considered a leader and influencer.Moreover, since these are people of influence, there will probably be people that others will want to know better. And as this type of group typically only meets once or twice a year, it’s an easier commitment to make than either the development committee or a task force.

    Why would a nonprofit want an advisory committee? To gain advice. But where you’d need a member of a task force to be engaged, you can afford to have aloof advisory committee members. These allow you and your organization to make a valuable offer to people you respect. But you are clear that this is in an advisory capacity only, not a governance capacity.

There are many good ways to engage people with your cause. Adding to your board should only be one of the options. And probably one of the last. Afterall, you’ll have to live with the board’s decisions.

As for the size of you board? Only as big as it needs to be, and as big as your by-laws stipulate.

Do you agree? Tell us what you would do in the comments?

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