How to Revitalize Your Board: Destroy Your Executive Committee

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Simone P. Joyaux, ACFRE is recognized internationally as an expert in fund development, board and organizational development, strategic planning, and management. She is the founder and director of Joyaux Associates. Visit her website here.

I’m on a worldwide mission to destroy all executive committees. And more and more people are joining me.

Here’s what one executive director told me after she shared one of my executive committee rants with her board: “I fear it won’t be long before services will be scheduled for our soon-to-be-passing Executive Committee. Though she’ll be remembered with fondness, I can almost smell a Board of Directors that gives a crap again.”

Imagine, revitalizing your board. Maybe your Executive Committee prohibits that.

So here’s the story: I have several worldwide missions. These missions define my life’s work. At every opportunity, I speak out and challenge people to talk about these issues. Things like philanthropy and equity . . .

And destroying all executive committees.

“Amen, sister!” said another executive director. And yet another executive director was jumping up and down with joy and figuring out how he would raise the issue with his board chair.

Eventually, a board member called me. His organization was thinking about establishing an executive committee. As we talked, he had a brilliant insight: “Our idea of establishing an executive committee is a response to deficiencies in the board.”

Wow. Talk about questioning the status quo. Talk about self-awareness. Has your organization asked itself “why?” Why do you want an executive committee? How will an executive committee add value?

Or are you just following what others have done – and those others didn’t ask themselves why? Are you compensating for a weakness instead of fixing the actual weakness? Do you just like the idea of a small, select group that kinda takes care of things and . . . And what?

So: back to my worldwide mission to destroy all executive committees.

Here’s my perspective, which is gaining lots of traction whenever I share these thoughts. (And I talk about executive committees and their dangers every chance I get – and that’s lots!)

First, let’s start with board committees in general. Most boards establish a number of committees, e.g., finance, governance, hopefully fund development.

But the premier committee, the trump all committee, is the executive committee. It’s different than any other committee. The others have specific and limited scopes of work. The executive committee does not. Instead, the executive committee…well, it exists to…kinda…well, you know…

Here’s what yet another executive director said to me after reading my original blog about executive committees: “The sentence that really resonated with me [in your blog] is – ‘Some organizations establish an executive committee to compensate for a weak board. Fix the board.'”

She added: “A person who is willing to sit on a board that uses an executive committee the way you, Simone, describe it might be wise to think about being part of that board. The fiduciary and oversight responsibility that belongs to a board member isn’t diminished by the number of meetings s/he attends. The full responsibility falls on all the board members.”

Then she summarized: “My most recent board has had difficulty in getting members to attend meetings because they’re so disengaged. So the board decided to have meetings less often with executive meetings on the off months. Now, more of the members don’t have any idea what’s going on, and I can’t see how that’s going to make them feel more useful. Scary.

Scary, indeed. Destroy your executive committee. Or, at least, talk about its purpose, its added value, and its dangers.

Who talks? The board. The full board. Not the executive committee! Not the board chair only. The full board. The board decides what committees it wants or doesn’t want.

But wait. Yes, I know. But wait. There are all these reasons people cite for having an executive committee. But I have answers. Answers for every single reason anyone has ever raised to me. Read my next column.


  • Wanda Cody

    Personally, I say scape theexucutive board! Often it consits ofmembers who were educated on the problem by people that never spent one day living in the mist of the problem. What you want is to fill your board with members directly connected to the problem that either live there presently or haved lived in the problem recently!They know the problem first hand and have a more realistic insight on how best to meet the problems need. If you want the best look for the problem solver that endured and survived in it before you arrived with your missions. Call that board whatever you like. I call it a better and more efficient spending of your mission’s resourses!

  • rmason

    First and foremost in this discussion is the question of whose interests come first, the persons whom the organizations exists to serve, the organization itself, or the interests of the executive director to the extent that those diverge from the interests of the first two, as is frequently the stake.

    The blogwriter seems to be defensive about the prerogatives of executive directors as opposed to the responsibilities of executive directors. The blogwriter seems to forget that the board serves to further the mission of the non-profit, not the mission of the executive director, who in many instances view the board as means to their ends. This has led to expansion of IRS scrutiny and to expanded reporting requirements on Form 990.

    Executive directors tend not to like executive committees because they resist being held accountable and are more comfortable with larger entities-the board where accountability is more diffuse.

    Executive directors tend to like executive committees because they permit more engagement with board members on a more regular basis.

    If executive directors believe that the purpose of the board and committees is to serve the needs of the executive director, then they prefer the more diffuse responsibility. If, on the other hand, they believe that the purpose of the board and committees is to serve the mission, then they prefer the greater engagement and the greater focus that an executive committee and other committee can bring.

  • DJL

    In courses I have taken – the mantra is that only the board is the board: the board speaks as a whole and has to make and be accountable for decisions as a whole, not in pieces. The deliberative body is the full board.
    Executive Committees can serve to form a “rubber stamp” approach where the full board is not engaged or informed, doesn’t have input in direction setting – so things trend toward disengagement and the bolstering of the status quo.
    Not that execs or presidents shouldn’t meet with officers of the board, but the decision making authority and engagement has to focus on the full board. The problem does lie in having board members who care and show up, who work together as a board. it is easier to work with a small group. But board service lacks meaning if the full board isn’t engaged in the critical, strategic issues and environment of the organization, and things like organizational knowledge, succession and diversity suffer. In other words, board responsibility becomes vested in a few, rather than in the broader pool of diversity where it belongs.

  • Gail Perry

    Simone, way to go! I agree 1000%.
    A strong executive committee equals a disengaged board.
    Just sent this out on twitter and told everybody to chime in with a comment!

  • Amy Eisenstein

    Great post and real food for thought. I frequently work with board members and their role in fundraising, but I never really gave much thought to the executive committee and how their existence was detracting from the rest of the board experience. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rachel Leventon

    I appreciate the perspective you are sharing here, but I would like to read more about what the alternative to an Executive Committee looks like, particularly in all-volunteer organizations that do not have an Executive Director. It seems that, in these situations, where the executive committee performs the work that might be done by staff in a larger organization, the Executive Committee meetings serve the same purpose that staff meetings would – reporting to the President and collaborating across departments/committees on the minutia of running the organization. I would love to hear more about what can be done to limit the exclusivity presented by an Executive Committee without undermining the functioning of the organization in situations like these.

  • Felicia Fett

    I could not agree more. The fact remains that the Executive Committee is among the top three committees on all nonprofit boards according to most recent surveys. I work closely with nonprofit boards and know firsthand that this tends to be a real bone of contention for the board members who don’t hold a seat on this much coveted committee. The Executive Committee tends to be a place where ‘charter creep’ happens like no other place on the board and it presents tremendous risk for all of the board members, not to mention the fact that it actually keeps the full board from realizing its full potential as a group. If a board is going to continue with an executive committee, I strongly encourage them to develop a committee charter to define the scope of authority (if one is not already established), require that minutes be taken for all meetings of the committee, and report out to the full board any actions taken on its behalf (and why) at the next regularly scheduled meeting to encourage full transparency and not perpuate the appearance of a ‘committee gone rogue’. Checks and balances are a critical must if there is not an appetite to do away with the committee completely.

    This is a fantastic post. I too am sending this out to Twitter to stimulate conversation about it.

    Until there is more conversation – this will continue to stay the same.

  • Lisa M

    If decisions are made primarily in the executive committee and not the full board I agree that the committee can kill Board engagement and I was at one nonprofit where that happened.

    At my current nonprofit however, the establishment of the executive committee has really helped to engage the board and help focus its priorities. The executive committee is not only the officers but also the committee chairs. Our strongest leaders sit on the executive committee and have been an invaluable sounding board for me. I am challenged and have meaningful conversations in this group that would be very difficult to have in the larger group. I do believe the transparency issue is important.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Hi all. Thanks for commenting on the column. A few things to keep in mind:
    1. The board does governance. That’s the process whereby a group of individuals work as a group to ensure the health and effectiveness of the corporation. See the job description of the board and process of due diligence – how to carry out that job description – in the Free Download Library of my website.

    2. Board committees exist to help the board do its governance work. But the committee does not substitute for the board.

    3. An executive committee is too general, too much like the board… that’s part of its inherent danger. Other committees are more narrowly focused. But any committee can act too much like a board and disempower the board. So any committee is a danger. Be careful!

    4. When you have no staff… so volunteers do governance and management…. It’s still important to distinguish between governance and management. The board must do governance. Individuals (board members and other volunteers) can do management. But governance and management are not the same. You can have meetings for both. And don’t confuse them.

    You’ll find assorted handouts on my website that describe lots of this. And one of these days – in addition to the two books I’ve already written – I plan to write a book about governance and boards. Until then, read my NPQ columns. Read all the articles / handouts on my website. Read the blogs on my website and my newsletter. You’ll see lots of stuff about governance and management and the distinction. You can also attend one of my workshops on this topic. See the schedule on my website. Or I can give you a workshop – for you, your board, whatever.

    But the bottom line is: The purpose of the board is to do corporate governance. Governance is similar to but also different than management. Board members can do management work – but when they’re doing management work they’re doing management work. They are not doing governance work. There is a difference and the difference is often just a matter of degree. But the difference is important for lots of reasons.

    Any committee risks disempowering the board — but the Executive Committee most of all.

    Have fun. Simone

  • JimSeely

    The predicate must be a reasonably sized board (5-7?). I am dealing with a 64 member board. A functional board must be able to delegate when it believes it is necessary – if not to an executive committee, then to whom? The board should be permitted through the bylaws to in effect define the scope of the the committee’s authority. Jim

  • Simone Joyaux

    Too many organizations use an executive committee to compensate for board weaknesses, e.g., board size. Instead, fix the board.

    So here’s an important question: How does size affect the effectiveness of the board/its ability to do corporate governance? Another question: How does board composition affect the effectiveness of the board/its ability to do corporate governance?

    Given these questions, what do you professionally believe is the appropriate size for the board.

    For example, a board needs to be sufficiently diverse in life experience to add insight and value. A board – as the group – must have the expertise to fulfill the obligations of corporate governance. A board – as the group – needs to be an appropriate size to have good conversations. I know what my answer is — and 5 – 7 people is far too small. 64 people is far too large.

    See all the other questions that I ask about building an effective board – posted in the Free Download Library on my website. See also the job description of the board and the performance expectations of the individual board member.

  • Keenan Wellar

    I’ve never understood how a board can be comprised of members that are equal under the law but in actuality a chosen few are acting from a superior decision-making position (so-called Executive Committee). I’ve been/am an Executive and have been/am a Board Member (with other organizations) and I can’t find any good reason for an Executive Committee in either circumstance.

  • Keenan Wellar

    I think John Carver would suggest that if not all of your board members are able to contribute on an equal basis, you should trim your board down to whatever number of people are able to fully contribute. If there are other people that want to engage, involve them in ways other than filling chairs as board members 😉

  • Beth Gazley

    There’s some flawed logic in this discussion if the argument is really that an Executive Committee compensates for a weak board, ergo it should be scrapped. But isn’t Ms. Joyaux actually critiquing a poor committee job description? Are there functions an EC can legitimately carry out without weakening the board? Can a division of responsibility between full board and EC actually support good governance practices? I would argue YES to both questions, because I have worked with ECs that operate with limited powers and focus most of their work on procedural efficiencies that allow the full board to focus instead on strategic matters. Instead of another “baby and bathwater” story, let’s focus our attention on using ECs to their best advantage.