Do We Really Need Board Committees?

Over the past 30 years, board committee structures have been streamlined. Many boards are looking for more flexible ways of managing their workload while adjusting to the board’s evolving needs.

According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015, the average number of committees is 4.8 with most boards having four or fewer committees. In 1994, boards had an average of 6.6 committees. Here are some alternatives for delegating — or not delegating — various tasks to specific committees.


 

Role of a committee

Committees can be a practical way to structure and manage the board’s work. Sometimes a smaller group can be more focused and efficient in dealing with issues than the full board. A committee is created to provide counseling and advice for the board or to handle a task on the board’s agenda. Any recommendations made by a committee needs to be approved by the board, but remember, the board is not obligated to go with committee suggestions. Committees are more effective when their charter and scope of work is clearly defined by the board.

Traditional committee structure

Most boards consider committees an essential part of their structure. Traditionally, the bylaws define the standing committees and their roles. According to Leading with Intent 2015, the most common standing board committees are finance, executive, development, and governance.

To allow for flexibility, the bylaws could authorize the board to form committees as necessary and allow for policies to define the details. In addition, boards can form ad hoc committees or task forces that are created to carry out a specific task. These also need a job description.

Qualities of an effective committee

A streamlined committee structure makes board work easier. Involving board members in committee activities is a direct way of taking advantage of everyone’s special skills and expertise. An effective committee has

  • a clear job description and defined goals
  • a chair who is able to involve all members in the committee work
  • members who are committed and willing to spend the needed time to accomplish their tasks
  • a sense of being part of the full board and not working in isolation
  • an understanding of time constraints and deadlines
  • an understanding that it does not make decisions; rather it advises, recommends, or carries out a task
  • an evaluation process to assess its own achievements

Task forces or ad hoc committees

Some boards do not form any standing committees; rather a need is identified, and a task force or an ad hoc committee is formed to carry out the necessary charge. Each task force is unique, so the answers to questions concerning meeting frequency, membership, and size will vary. Task forces allow the board to concentrate on only pressing issues and avoid wasting board members’ time on activities that are not of strategic importance. Examples of these work groups would be a bylaws task force, tasked with reviewing the bylaws, or a search committee, tasked with leading the search for a new chief executive.

Zero-based committee structure

To push efficiency even further, some boards start each year with a clean committee slate. Only the ones that are still needed are re-created. An evaluation process allows the board to reassess the composition of the committee and redirect the focus of the working group if necessary. The benefits of this approach include the following:

  • Stagnation can be avoided. The board is flexible and future-oriented.
  • Unnecessary committees are dissolved.
  • Leadership opportunities are more frequent.
  • Leadership changes are not threatening.

Outsiders as committee members

Few boards possess all the necessary skills and expertise. Some organizations choose to address this by inviting outsiders with specific contacts and knowledge to serve on committees or task forces. Committee members do not have the same liabilities and pressures as full-fledged board members. This is an excellent way to bring new talents and perspectives to the board as well as provide busy professionals with an opportunity to serve a mission they support. Other benefits include no need to increase the board size, providing opportunities for former board members to stay active, and providing a structure for cultivating future board members.

No committees at all

Small and particularly cohesive boards may find that they need no committees at all. Board members manage the workload together as a committee of the whole or delegate tasks to individual board members. This requires effective leadership and commitment from every member.

 

101 Resource | Last Updated June 20, 2016


Resources: Transforming Board Structure: Strategies for Committees and Task ForcesCommittee SeriesNonprofit Board Answer Book