One of the saddest things for a nonprofit management consultant to behold is an important initiative led by a steering committee that passively defers all meaningful activities to a parent organization’s governing (fiduciary) board of directors.
“We’re not a real board!” the members explain. “The trustees of our parent organization take care of all the serious business. We just organize the annual casino night fundraiser, and we’re increasing our goal from $500 to $800 this year!”
This is a familiar sentiment here at JCamp 180, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, where a team of ten management consultants mentors 115 Jewish summer camps throughout North America. It also resonates with our extensive experience throughout the nonprofit sector as independent consultants.
Technically, of course, they’re right. At best, steering committees are really only committees of the parent organization’s board of directors, with no voting power or real authority. And just as often, they aren’t even officially sanctioned board committees and have no real connection to the governing board. With no fiduciary or substantive responsibility, the committees and their members often identify with the train engineer’s dilemma:
It’s not my place to run the train, the whistle I can’t blow.
It’s not my place to say how far the train’s allowed to go.
It’s not my place to shoot off steam, nor even clang the bell.
But let the damn thing jump the track and see who catches hell!
But the reality is that robust and high-functioning steering committees have enormous potential—to strengthen the initiative in direct ways, but also to help its parent organization’s governing board provide excellent oversight and achieve its own objectives. And so there is no reason for a zero-sum power dynamic to emerge between a steering committee and a governing board.
Rather, when both parties are sophisticated and high functioning, the benefits are mutual.
To transform steering committees, you need two basic things. First, you need a parent organization that understands the benefit of a strong committee and empowers the steering committee to play that role. No matter how capable the governing board is, its ability to develop realistic budgets, plan for facilities needs, cross-promote, and increase fundraising—just to name a few examples—is augmented by meaningful collaboration with an engaged steering committee. By delegating to reliable steering committees, governing boards also free themselves up to focus on higher-level issues, knowing the initiative has the day-to-day support and oversight it needs. Delegating is easier when the steering committee includes a couple members of the governing board.
The second prerequisite for evolving a steering committee is that its members must be able to see past the formality of the legal distinction and envision a sophisticated “board-like” role for itself. This second criterion is much harder to come by than it may seem. Explanations of what non-fiduciary committees can do, peppered with interesting real life examples, often yield blank stares and a restatement of the original assertion: “But we’re not a legal board.”
In many cases, this simply reflects a lack of imagination. Marginally functional committees are often deeply embedded cultural artifacts that take time to eradicate. Anyone looking to advance the role of a committee should anticipate this sticking point, and be prepared to repeat, wait, and be ready with well-organized, written, and detailed instructions for realizing the group’s full potential.
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Don’t get stuck on semantics. The term “steering committee” is used here, but many terms are used in this context: advisory board, program committee, governing council, and most confusing, simply “the board.” Regardless of terminology, these dynamics are common and the advice is the same.
“Advisory board” is a tricky term because it is frequently a label for something quite different. Nonprofits often maintain advisory boards that operate more peripherally but still serve an important and distinct role. This type of board is populated with experts and people of prominence who do not have the time to contribute substantially. Nonetheless, their occasional counsel and the ability to use their names can be very valuable. This type of advisory board is a wonderful complement to a highly engaged steering committee, but it is definitely not a substitute for one. And for this reason, if you have a choice, don’t use the term “advisory board” in any other situation.
Here is a checklist of responsibilities we developed that both governing boards and steering committees can take on in order to significantly elevate the role of the steering committee. This checklist was distributed at a quarterly meeting of the governing board of the parent organization for a summer camp. It was a milestone just to be invited to make a short presentation. There was no expectation the board would authorize the full list. Instead, the document was meant to give board members a sense of the big picture and what is possible. Framed as a collection of options, the board was more likely to agree to take a stab at two or three.
In fact, the board was delighted to have this contact with the camp and get an update on the rich program. Furthermore, they were impressed by the list and motivated to undertake several items:
- Including the camp on the formal agenda regularly
- Inviting camp staff to present more often
- Endeavoring to recruit steering committee members for the governing board
- Encouraging existing governing board members to serve on the steering committee and pay a visit to the camp.
Buoyed by the encouragement from the board, which felt like a shift in the overall message, the steering committee is also gearing up. (The list was also a helpful organizing tool.) The steering committee is recruiting new members, using the list to explain a more robust scope of work and communicate the elevated expectations for members. Officers are being named. A commitment was made to plan and launch an in-depth strategic planning process in the fall once the camp season is behind them. Improving the structure and content of the alumni database is also now a priority.
Progress on these priorities, and toward the overall goal of a high-functioning steering committee working effectively with a supporting governing parent board, will not be speedy or linear. But with vigilance internally, and ideally with support from an outside consultant who shares these goals and can help bring perspective and an independent eye, the initiative will be stronger than ever.
The past several decades have seen an explosion of new, and much smaller organizations acquiring their IRS 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) tax exemptions. Followed by a more recent phenomenon of mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations throughout the sector triggered by the 2008 economic crisis, today’s nonprofit sector is extremely heterogeneous. As a result, parent organization dynamics have become more common, more varied, and an increasingly critical determinant of success or failure. Luckily, best practices are emerging, and organizations need not struggle alone.
What responsibilities can the steering committee take on?
- Organize and execute major fundraising events
- Cultivate and steward individual donors
- Organize the annual appeal
- Develop and execute a scholarship campaign
- 100% personal participation in fundraising
- Create officers (chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer)
- Create sub-committees (finance, fundraising, governance, enrollment, marketing, personnel, etc.)
- Develop and manage alumni database
- Develop an annual program of in-person and virtual events and communications for alumni
- Engage the governing board (attend meetings, host visits, etc.)
- Solicit and analyze feedback (surveys, focus groups, etc.) from a range of stakeholders
- Lead social media and online presence
- Participate in professional development programs
What can the governing board do?
- Recruit additional board members with project connections
- Create an official board committee staffed specifically for the project
- Might require creating several “program committees,” of which the camp committee might be just one
- Committees should include board members and non-board members
- Frequently include a project review on meeting agendas
- Invite steering committee members and staff to present and consult on board topics that relate to the project
- All board members make a project visit (individually or as a group)