In something of a feedback loop, the board members themselves can earn more as they approve swelling pay packages for the executives to whom they are beholden for their lucrative assignments. According to the Corporate Library, the median pay boost for board members in 2008 was 11 percent.
Bloomberg Business Week, citing data compiled by Pearl Meyer & Partners, said that the typical director of a large corporation made $216,000 last year, up from $129,667 in 2003.
For some, total compensation, including cash payments, stock grants, and other perks, has climbed above seven figures. The highest-earning board member they found was Edward A. Kangas. His 2008 board pay: $1,314,418. That includes four directorships: Intuit, which pays him $374,888; Hovnanian Enterprises, $409,007; Tenet Healthcare, $404,046; and United Technologies, $126,477.
If he could change only one thing about corporate boards, author Gillespie said he would make it illegal for the CEO of a company to serve also as chairman. Sixty-one percent of Fortune 500 companies have a CEO who is also the chairman of the board.
A version of the Senate's financial reform bill, currently being debated, would require companies to send out materials to investors explaining why their CEO is also the chairman. It is a first step, but hardly a meaningful one, said Gillespie.
"CEOs doubling as chairman of public companies should be banned, period," he said. "It shifts the power entirely to the executives. They need oversight, not a rubber stamp." ABC News' Charles Herman contributed to this report