Committees . . . Love Them or Hate Them

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I actually like committees.

Well, let me rephrase that statement: I like effective committees. And I believe it’s the staff’s job to make committees effective.

Staff enables committees to function effectively, productively, and successfully. (There’s that enabling word again. Check out my earlier column about enabling. And for details and examples, see the chapter in my book Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, 3rd edition.)

So here are some of my favorite thoughts about committees.
1.  Board committees help the board do corporate governance. For more information about corporate governance, click on “Resources” and visit the Free Download Library on my website. 

The board’s committees report to the board and the board directs and controls these committees. I want a finance committee and a governance committee. I want a fund development committee, too. You’ll find job descriptions for the governance and fund development committees in the Free Download Library on my website. And check out my previous NPQ column on governance committees.

I don’t want any other regular, ongoing board committees. When a corporate governance issues arises that warrants group exploration, I set up ad hoc task forces. For example, I set up an ad hoc task force to carry out the CEO’s annual performance appraisal. Once the task is finished, the task force goes out of business.

I might set up a personnel task force to review personnel policies. Maybe the task force meets 2 or 3 times, finishes its work, and goes out of business.

2.  Effective committees don’t waste board time by making reports. Send reports to board members and they can read the reports. Effective committees engage the board in strategic conversation about strategic issues. In my scenario, committees appear on the board-meeting agenda only if there’s a strategic conversation to be had.

3.  Effective committees don’t just make recommendations to the board. Sometimes committees refuse to make a recommendation. Instead, the committee explores options and engages the board in conversation. Then the board decides.

Mostly, I expect committees to engage the board in strategic conversation. That means the committee has to provide background information and set the context for conversation.

4.  Committees do not direct or supervise staff. Staff directs and supervises staff.

5.  A board member chairs a board committee. Board members serve on the committee. But non-board members can service on committees, too. That’s a great way to build your organization’s reach and identify new candidates for board membership.

6.  The committee chair and staff person assigned to the committee are partners providing leadership to the committee.

7.  At the end of each committee meeting, I recommend that the committee explore the following:

  • Does the board need to make a decision based on something we, the committee, have explored? If yes, will the committee recommend a decision to the board and seek board reaction to the recommendation? Or, should the board have a strategic conversation—facilitated by committee information—and the board should then decide?
  • Do we the committee need to help build board understanding and ownership, but no action is necessary at this time?
  • Do we the committee need to inform / expose the board to something now (so at some point in the future, the board might make a decision about something)?

So that’s my spiel about committees that help the board do corporate governance.

But what about committees like marketing ones? I think marketing is, most definitely, a management responsibility. And if the CEO or marketing director wants to set up a committee of experts, go for it. That’s a management committee that reports to management.

And what about a program committee? After all, the board is responsible for the health and effectiveness of the corporation—and ensuring appropriate program and program quality are certainly central to corporate health.

But program committees can be dangerous. It’s too easy to move into management. So I don’t recommend setting up a board-level program committee.

Yes, the board talks about program. Yes, part of corporate governance is ensuring the quality and effectiveness of program (which is, after all, the way you carry out your mission). But we don’t need a committee to do that. Issues and topics can go directly to the board without going through a committee.

And, finally, if you don’t see mention of an executive committee in this column, you’re reading correctly. I’m on a worldwide mission to destroy all executive committees. Just read that column!

  • Doug Delaney

    Very practical and handy guide for fiduciary-board members. I agree with limiting committees from the board agenda unless strategic. Thank you for the outstanding article.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thank you, Doug, for your complimentary comment. There’s so much work to be done to make our committees better. Perhaps that can be a 2012 New Year’s Resolution?