Determining the Right Span of Control for Your Nonprofit

Nonprofits cover a wide range of fields, sizes and organizational structures. There is no way to determine the “right way” of working as a nonprofit, since what works for one, very likely will not work for another. This reasoning stands for many aspects of an organizational structure, but specifically for the span of control.

Span of control is normally defined as the number of subordinates who report to a leader, whether that leader is the Executive Director or several rungs down on the ladder. In order to help determine the right span of control for your nonprofit, here are a few general guidelines you can follow to get an idea of what you could be aiming for.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There are a few questions that you should be asking yourself as to how your unique nonprofit functions in order to determine what size span of control would work best for you. Here are just a few to get you started:

How is work coordinated?

Standardized: If your nonprofit is more standardized, it means that your work gets done through set processes. This would likely mean that you could have a larger span of control, as there doesn’t need to be as much on-hand supervision or discussions.

Simple: If your company operates under a more simple structure, likely due to a smaller size, this means that your work is very much up close and personal. Business is communicated face to face and discussions or “adhocracies” are commonplace. This type of work requires a shorter span of control, as the work is more time consuming.

Is your company structured?

Bureaucratic: If your company is bureaucratic in its approach, meaning that there are detailed policies and job descriptions in place, then you can have a wider span of control.

Informal: If you’re a smaller or newer company, you likely have less plans set into place, which creates a lot of wiggle room. This organic approach does require more supervision in general, and a shorter span of control.

Stable or dynamic?

Ultimately it comes down to whether your company in this moment, not in the future, is stable (wider span of control) or dynamic (shorter span of control).

Advice for Moving Forward

While it is important to realize if you can have more or fewer subordinates reporting to a manager, what is arguably more important is how these subordinates are managed. Here are a few tips to ensure a better span of control.

  • Know What You Want. Focus on what kind of team you want in the future, and plan for that goal. There should be no compromise with regard to team construct. You should make sure that your team is made up of people you believe will get you to where you need to be.
  • Be Realistic. Know your limits as a leader and act accordingly. Each leader is going to have a different set of skills, so use yours wisely. If you know you can’t focus on too many people, don’t put a lot of people on your team. It will ultimately be your undoing. The work is far more important than the number.
  • Push Yourself. This is something that leaders often forget. You want a team that will drive you to be better. Find people that will challenge you and push you further, because if you become stagnant, they’ll find someone else who wants to develop.
  • Trust Your Team. This is key, and it is simple. You should trust your team, and they should trust you.

Span of control extends beyond just a number to a full leadership style. It is important to embrace the style that best benefits your unique situation, in order to bring out the best in your nonprofit.