This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.
While the complex scope of nonprofit governance overwhelms many a board, most already have the basic structure in place to both break down the work into manageable areas and the option to bring individual members closer to the reason they agreed to serve in the first place: its committees.
Simply having these standing groups in place doesn't guarantee that they will function effectively. But with the right context and support in place, committees offer the potential to transform the work of our boards. Following are 10 thoughts about how to pave the way.
1. Establish committees that advance board priorities, not staff functions. The former ensures that they feed the board's governance responsibilities (e.g., community outreach, resource development, accountability). The former invites micromanagement (e.g., marketing, personnel).
2. Recognize that some committees should not be "forever" commitments. Some assignments may be better off delegated to task forces, short-term groups that convene to address a specific issue or project, then disbanded when the work is complete. This focuses committee members' time and energy on efforts that contribute to the board's work and the agency's mission, whatever that may be. It also reduces the risk that we'll be wasting valuable board time in committees that serve no strategic purpose but continue to meet because they exist.
3. Offer direction. When setting up a committee, define a clear purpose for its existence. Set boundaries for the scope of its work and its connection to the board's larger responsibilities. Then, within that framework, identify annual tasks that feed into the board's goals for the same time frame.
4. Charge them with becoming the board's resident experts on their assigned area(s). Expect committees to develop deeper knowledge about a smaller subset of board work. Ask them to explore industry standards, national trends, etc. Charge them with identifying how that bigger picture translates into "local" issues and opportunities: how they impact your nonprofit's clients and communities. Hold the committee accountable for expanding the board's collective knowledge base while narrowing the scope of what an individual member is expected to know deeply. A bonus: Many members will find reward in having an opportunity to learn and apply that new knowledge in service to others.
5. As possible, assign committee membership according to member interests and strengths. It may not be uniformly possible to do this and fully staff each work group. But as a rule, confident board members who are interested in the work with which they're charge will be more engaged and successful. Begin the committee staffing process with the goal of matching members to their areas of interest.
6. Ask them to share routine information in writing. In the highly transient environment of nonprofit boards, paper trails are a good thing. Written committee reports provide an efficient way to share information that does not require action with current board members and offer context/historical perspective for those who will follow. More important, moving away from oral reports opens up precious meeting time to discuss the questions that emerge from committees' research.
7. Ask them to facilitate discussions related to their work areas. As your internal experts, your committees should be helping the board generate the strategic, fiduciary and generative questions that it should be asking and exploring. They should be trusted to participate in leading the discussions based on those questions, helping to guide the board into informed deliberation. They also have an opportunity to demonstrate/build situational leadership that serves the group as a whole.
8. Give them the support they need. Committees may require a range of resources to fulfill their responsibilities. Some of their needs may be informational, e.g., connection to mission-area sources (websites, reports, videos, etc.). Some may be developmental, such as opportunities to participate in face to face or distance-delivered training programs. Connections to larger peer communities, engaged in similar work, may be another need. Whatever support is required, do your best to provide whatever can be reasonably accessed.
9. Where appropriate, expand community membership to the community. Most committees benefit from the added energy and connections that community members bring to the table. Where possible, invite volunteers seeking ways to increase their participation. Ask professionals to share their specific expertise in a focused committee assignment. Expand your reach into the community via these new connections as you create new ambassadors for your work. An added benefit: Your committees become a natural pipeline for prospective board members - you already know their work styles, their commitment to your mission, and their leadership potential.
10. Evaluate them. Just as you owe your committees a clear purpose and benchmarks for success, you also owe them the courtesy of regular assessment of their work. Committee evaluation not only holds your chief work groups accountable to the board for contributing to its forward progress, it also offers feedback on - and acknowledgment of - those contributions.
Our committees hold far more potential than we are currently allowing them to deliver. How have you engaged your committees in interesting and productive ways? What is possible with more involved and motivated work groups? What can we do to transform our committees?