Monday, January 9, 2012

Rethinking nonprofit board committees

Do your board committees make sense? Are their responsibility areas governance responsibilities, leading the group toward effective leadership on their unique roles; or are they digging into areas best left to staff?

For most nonprofit boards, committees are where the focused work takes place. A smaller group of members assumes responsibility for a facet of the board's work and, we hope, exploring options to share with the rest of the group. Ideally, they also are assuming leadership for facilitating board discussions about those issues, educating the larger group about the options and impacts on the way to thoughtful and appropriate decisions.

Used well, committees allow members to apply their existing expertise or build knowledge in an interest area while doing the background work necessary for an appropriate collective decision. They also develop members' leadership skills in a specific aspect of the board's work and potentially for the board as a whole.

Unfortunately, many committees fail to reach their full potential. And there's one major reason for that: they're charged with the wrong focus areas. They're assigned what essentially are staff functions. Do these sound familiar?

  • Personnel Committee
  • Finance Committee
  • Public Relations/Marketing Committee
  • Fundraising Committee
  • Building and Grounds Committee

Yes, the board is responsible for all aspects of the organization's health and stability. They have deep interest in these (and other) aspects of the agency. They even have some governance-level responsibility in each area. But unless they are charged otherwise, these committees naturally will be drawn to goals and tasks that border on staff functions - and micromanagement.

Micromanagement is a special risk. Board members want to serve. They want to be thorough and diligent. However, it is a very short leap from "helpful" to "interfering." They naturally will gravitate toward what they know and do best. Members who have expertise in specific areas (e.g., contractors on the buildings committee or PR professionals on the public relations committee) will want to dive in and get involved in tasks that may be staff responsibilities. They may hover over staff, alienating those employees. They may even actively interfere. There are ways to participate and lead in the areas where they have applicable knowledge and skills. How they exercise them as part of the governing body is the question.

For some nonprofits, where there are no employees or where the board assumes heavy operational responsibility alongside a small staff, there may be legitimate reasons for members to take a more hands-on role. It does not absolve them of their governance responsibilities, though. They cannot ignore those leadership functions while taking on those day-to-day, management- or volunteer-level activities. They must attend to the essential duties that come with governance, first and foremost. They are legally and morally obligated to do so.

If the board leads a larger, more fully-staffed nonprofit, they should be primarily spending their energy on the larger visionary, strategic and accountability roles for which they are primarily responsible.

I'd like to propose that changing the charge of our committees - assigning them responsibility for different governance-level roles - moves the board itself closer to accomplishing what they are called to do.

What if your board's working groups looked something like this:

  • Resource Development Committee
  • Community Engagement Committee
  • Accountability Committee
  • Board Development Committee

What you choose as responsibility areas depends both on your board's general governance roles and your specific organizational need areas (which may change from time to time). Where does your organization require their leadership? That's where your committees should aim.

Aspects of the more common committees would still receive board attention (For example, resource development might cover policy development for fundraising; and community engagement would inevitably include public relations goals.). But they would cover far more, and more at the board's leadership level. It also likely that it would draw board member attention to the higher-level contributions where they will find greater satisfaction.

I think I'll stop here with this post, lay the groundwork for a larger discussion and gather your feedback on the notion. In a future post, I'll flesh out a bit further what a shift in committee focus might open up for the board, the work it does, and the impact on your nonprofit.


Carolina Salguero said...

Hear hear. Thanks for this post.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Thanks, Carolina! I've long been bothered by the way nonprofit boards mis- or under-use their committees.

Helping them own the bigger roles of governance, by charging committees with responsibility for different aspects of that work, is a big step forward.

I'm working on follow-up post, on what that ideal committee environment might look like.

Carlo Cuesta said...

On a very practical level I think it comes down to the quality of conversation board members have when they are together. Even the most seasoned member can slip into a very tactical point of view, if the group's focus has not been trained to the kind of strategic discourse that is the hallmark of good governance. More importantly, I think it only takes one person to elevate the conversation-- evaluating impact, discussing how to resource systems and special efforts, and challenge other members to invest in their "boundary-spanning" role as opposed to managing day-to-day operations.

Great post.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

What a marvelous framing you've provided in your comment, Carlo. The more we expect - and stretch - our boards to focus their attention on the major, strategic issues facing our organizations, the more likely they are to rise to that challenge.

I'm also completely convinced that most boards would rather be engaged in the visionary work of governance. We all benefit when they are attending to their true responsibilities.