Strategic Governance: does board composition matter?

By Karen Lehman May 24, 2023

The effectiveness of your board of directors depends on each individual member and the collective contributions that are made to fulfill the mission and vision of your ministry. Whom you select, their specific professional expertise, along with other important personal attributes, is critically important for board effectiveness and your organizational credibility. Of course, the number of board members matters, but getting the right members on the board comes first.

There is no one specific formula for determining the composition and structure of your board, although there are best practices. Form definitely follows function! The ability of a nonprofit board to help an organization reach its strategic goals to fulfill its mission and vision depends strongly on how decisions are made and by whom.

What are the skills and expertise you need on the board?  The board executive committee or governance committee should be charged to spend time considering this question. Who are the board members you need given your strategic plan, your mission, and your vision? Consider whom you serve, where you are going, and how you’re going to get there. The committee should ask what the ideal mix of professional skills, personal/professional resources, background, experience, demographics, community connections, and other characteristics that your board requires to meet your challenges in the next three to five years is.

Consider using a board matrix tool that clearly designates the skills, demographics, and expertise that you need. It shows you where you have gaps in the preferred mix of skills and attributes, and also allows you to track and maintain member terms.

Most nonprofit boards have term limits that are staggered to ensure good succession planning. Ideally, term limits ensure that new ideas and perspectives are regularly brought to the board and there is  opportunity for bringing in talented people to serve your organization.  Without term limits, a board can inadvertently create a concentration of power within the board and lose the opportunity to regularly seek different and new perspectives. As your organization changes, so should your board membership.

“When you have board member term limits, it can take more work, but it’s worth it.”

When you have board member term limits, it can take more work, but it’s worth it. It takes time to continually work on board recruitment and succession planning, but it is one of the important responsibilities of a board of directors. The potential loss of organizational memory with limits means that an effective board member orientation, onboarding, and mentor process has to be given a high priority. Helping new board members learn about the organization, develop a passion for your ministry, and become an advocate are critically important and so rewarding!

Finally, a few words on best practices for term limits and board composition. Nonprofit boards can be as small as nine members and as large as eighteen. The smaller the board, the more commitment each member must give to the work. On the other hand, too many members can make it easy to lose commitment (who will miss me if I don’t come to the meeting?), unless you have committee structures that allow for specific engagement beyond the board meeting. You can also bring non-board members into committee roles that can help in succession planning. Board terms are typically three or four years in length, and are limited to three or four terms.

While there are ideal board structures and compositions, each board and organization is unique.  If you want support in developing a process to determine what is ideal for your ministry, contact MHS Association and

Check out MHS Association’s board profile template below.



MHS Association's Board Profile Template

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