Smaller Boards Flexible, Engage All Members

May 1, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

Although the board of Do Something was made up of 23 members — right around the sweet spot that most best practices suggest – the Manhattan-based youth volunteer organization still cut it in half.

Nonprofit boards typically get big because of a give-or-get policy, adding members and morphing into fundraising mechanisms, said Nancy Lublin, Do Something’s executive director. Boards generally go by the law of thirds, according to Lublin: one-third of members are “super engaged,” another third are not and essentially “dead weight,” and another third are somewhere in the middle, no matter how small. “For a big board like that, it’s easy for people to check out,” she said.

With the changes undertaken for DoSomething in 2011, Lublin said they needed a board that would be more hands-on. The organization “pivoted” toward mobile and text-based communications with its constituency: teens. Last February, Lublin and her board chair called each of the 22 other board members individually about increasing considerably the board’s give-and-get policy.

According to the BoardSource 2010 Governance In­dex Survey, the average size of a board is 16 members, with a median of 15. Organizations with budgets of $10 million or more have an average of 18, according to the index, and those with less than $1 million typically have 14. Some states require only a minimum number of board members for a nonprofit, as few as one, two or three.

The board’s give-or-get policy was tripled, though Lublin said it’s not enforced too stringently. “The point wasn’t to kick members off the board; we’re getting serious. We’re no longer going to be a nice place where we have lunch four times a year,” Lublin said.

The policy is now in the “low five figures,” she said, but most of the organization’s funding comes through corporate giving, with very little from individuals each year. Tripling the board’s give-or-get policy wasn’t the reason behind revenue jumping from $3.3 million to $8.5 million. That was the result of $5 million in funding from Google, the Knight Foundation, and the Omidyar Foundation to focus on data analysis, innovation and mobile that Lublin described will “fuel our product development.” About 65 percent of its budget comes from corporate funding and another 21 percent from foundations.

Corporations see DoSomething as a better return than newspaper or television advertising, said Lublin, adding that even during the recession the organization has been able to attract cause marketing dollars. “There are few smart ways to develop relationships with teens, only a handful of websites and media companies in the youth space, and all are pretty different,” she said.

“We’re uniquely positioned to influence young people, the masses of teens out there who have the potential to change the world,” said Aria Finger, DoSomething’s chief operating officer. DoSomething.org was on track to get more than one million unique visitors in January.

Lublin doesn’t really see DoSomething as having any competitors and its campaigns are “cause agnostic,” she said, adding for instance that they work with the Humane Society, PETA and ASPCA. She sees the organization as sort of an AARP for young people, texting with 120,000 teens annually.

The only new board member was LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who Lublin said wouldn’t join the board if it was 23 members. Some former board members told Lublin they were looking for an opportunity to step back, with some remaining members of other committees or advisory boards.

The board’s executive committee agreed with the move to a smaller board. “No one in Silicon Valley has a board of more than nine, said Lublin, and approximately one-third of its board is in Silicon Valley. Hoffman also sits on the board of Kiva, the micro-lending charity website. Having a small board allows for meeting more often, which leads to more intense conversation and better decisions, Lublin said. “They (board members) all really know what’s going on,” she said. “Organizations capable of changing need that concentrated decision making.”

Lublin cited a study from consulting firm Bain Capital that came out a year ago that the optimal number of people for decision making is seven and every person added after that decreases decision-making ability by 10 percent. So according to that thinking, after 17 people, you’re decision-making ability is likely zero.

Usually, a reduction in the size of a board can be seen as a power play among a faction of board members. But Lublin said that if anything, she’s given up some power, because a smaller board invites more scrutiny of the organization, and specifically of the CEO, which she wants. “I love it; I don’t know that everyone would,” she said.

DoSomething’s shift toward more mobile wasn’t specifically in pursuit of funding, and Lublin warns against charities chasing money in that way. “We knew we wanted to do that and we got the money to make it happen,” Lublin said. “It’s more a long-term engagement with individual members,” she said.

“Don’t be a moth to a flame. Use technologies that you need. It sounds really sexy but teens aren’t on Twitter in huge rates, so we don’t concentrate much on that in 2012 because it doesn’t matter to our target market. People think it’s super cool to talk about the latest technology and how to use it, but it doesn’t matter to their target market at all, or their business model. Technology to us is core to what we do,” she said.

“Some of the stuff that we do is really applicable” to other nonprofits, said Lublin. “Fall in love with who you work for; not the foundation that funds you, not your board. We’re public-good organizations. That’s your real boss. That’s why we switched to texting; every 15-year-old is addicted to texting. She’s the boss of me. Despite having nine board members, I really work for the 15-year-old girls of America,” said Lublin. “Who do you work for, and how well do you know them? I live this brand. I watch iCarly on Friday nights. And if I wasn’t working for a teen organization, I’d love that target market,” she said.

“Do you really love the people you serve? I’ve met executives who seem to have disdain for their clients. You innovate alongside them if you listen to them.” NPT