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  • Caryn Bosson

Doing committees right

As a nonprofit grows, especially if it has hired staff, there will come a time when the board is going to require committees. Many organizations go for a long time without adopting this structure, and some never do. But those who do have unlocked the ability to strengthen and expand their organization’s impact, if committees are done right.

Here are 5 basic practices that can help:

1. Ensure that there’s a board member as committee chair, and a staff member to provide back up support.

Committees serve the board. They are a way of conducting board business that won’t fit into the format of board meetings or need to involve so many people: for example looking closely at the finances, or planning the fundraising program. Each committee should have a board member as its official chair. One benefit is that this broadens the number of board members playing leadership roles (that is, unless there are the same three or four people leading everything, which is pretty common…in which case, expand!).

As board members flex their leadership wings in chairing a committee, they should be able to rely on administrative and thought-partnership support from an assigned staff member. This helps them make the best use of their volunteer time and energy, and keeps this extra duty manageable.

Speaking of keeping things manageable, make sure the Executive Director isn’t overstretched providing back-up for too many committees. This is also a chance for staff leadership to grow!

2. Plan goal-oriented, action-oriented meetings.

If you’re going to have committees that people want to participate in, then they need to be run thoughtfully and crisply. That means that each committee has an overall committee charge (set by the board) and clear goals to accomplish within a time frame (depending on current board priorities).

Committees also need clear goals for what to accomplish at each and every meeting. The meetings need to start on time, end on time, and have an agenda that addresses those goals, outlining and moving towards tangible next steps.

This requires advanced agenda planning. The committee chair and the staff lead need to be involved, and the board chair or relevant officers can weigh in, if appropriate. As each agenda is planned, the team should ask themselves: “How can this meeting be the most worthwhile use of everyone’s time?” and “If we’re successful, what will we walk away with?”

Meeting for the sake of meeting or filling a calendar obligation is deadly. Best to cancel!

3. Share the meeting outcomes/decisions in an actionable way.

A committee meeting can be well-run and accomplish a lot, but that only gets you halfway towards success. The other half is making sure that the decisions are communicated to all who need to know about them, and the next steps and assignments are evident. Think of each committee meeting as moving the ball down the field— and making sure the rest of the team knows exactly where it lands so they can knowledgeably participate in the game.

This starts with the format of the minutes. Rather than a record of discussion, minutes can be much shorter, mainly recording what was decided (and why) and what the next steps are for each decision. Then those minutes need to be circulated in a timely way to all the stakeholders who need to be in the know. It’s not helpful for them to arrive two weeks later, especially if they delineate next action steps.

Board meetings should include these minutes in the pre-meeting packet. They can be part of a consent agenda (not requiring discussion), or put on a discussion agenda, depending on what is needed. Generally, some discussion is helpful, so that everyone is agreement on those all-important next steps, and those assigned to fulfill them have some accountability.

4. Invite non-board members to serve on committees.

This is the secret fuel that can turn committees into engines for growth. Esteemed people from among your stakeholders, who may never agree to join your board (or who may not be appropriate for your board), can still play meaningful leadership roles in your organization by being invited to serve on one of your well-run committees.

I can’t emphasize enough how valuable this can be. These folks, by being included in the inside track, can build a sense of ownership and loyalty that makes a big difference in inspiring them to share ideas and expertise, contacts and funds. And sometimes it becomes very clear that they should be invited to join as a full board member, and sometimes (after enough of those effective and crisp meetings) they will be very ready to do so!

5. Basic committees that are needed.

While La Piana and Associates has a well-regarded framework for a simple three committee structure, my preference is for at least these three basic committees: Finance, Governance, and Development. Board Source has a good description of the kind of recruitment needed for each of these.

Now you’re on your way to doing committees right!

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