Abolish Board Committees?

A fresh and radical idea: consider eliminating all (or most) of your board committees. Too many boards are bogged down by committees that are inactive or maybe even semi-fictitious. And board members can feel compelled to be on three or four committees each!

The reality is that very few committees need to exist in perpetuity. Instead of a permanent Personnel Committee, for example, create a time-limited HR Task Force to oversee policy revision and then disband. In place of a standing Program Committee, form a time-limited Library Committee that tackles reviewing library usage and then dissolve the group. The same folks might volunteer for the subsequent Newsletter Overhaul Committee to reinvent the newsletter, and then move on after four months.

One permanent (standing) committee you'll probably need is the Finance Committee, which must oversee financial performance on a continuous basis. Some organizations might also want to keep a Fundraising Committee, while others might replace this body with two task forces: one to coordinate the fall luncheon and one to plan and manage the county fair booth.

Task forces, ad hoc committees and temporary committees all have specific tasks to accomplish in a specific timeframe. Signing up to work on a project with a clear goal and a termination point always trumps the prospect of indefinite service on a committee weighed down by a vague purpose.

An added bonus resulting from shifting to temporary committees is the changing mix of team participants. Interaction among a variety of members on the board will result in having the right people "on the bus" more often, and by board members getting to know more people on the board. And isn't getting to work with more people in new settings one of the reasons we join boards in the first place?

Go for it!

Comments (10)

  • Absolutely there's something soporific about the word "committee," and "task force" sounds much sexier and more active. And it's true that very few organizations require a standing personnel committee; once the employee handbook is written, the personnel committee often has nothing else to do and falls to making mischief in the form of interfering with personnel decisions that are properly the role of the staff.
    But that's not the same thing as suggesting Boards don't need committees. Every Board should have a fundraising committee to plan how the year's revenue is to be generated--without it, the Board comes to believe that the Executive Director will take care of all that. And "planning the spring event" is not the same thing; Boards who think it is will never mature to the necessary next step of asking individuals to give money when those individuals aren't dressed in their finest.
    Moreover, any Board without committees will do one of two things: be silent and passive at Board meetings while the Executive Director talks and talks (because Board members, having no committee tasks, will have nothing to report to each other), or spend Board meetings handling minutia of staffing or program planning or event preparation instead of keeping eyes on the mission and how to achieve it. Neither a passive nor a nit-picking Board is desirable, and so committees--whatever they're called--are absolutely essential.

    Apr 15, 2008
  • Excellent!
    Two main benefits I can see from having an un-structured committee structure are providing focus and preventing burn-out.
    Focus: Task-specific, time-limited committees know what they are to accomplish and when they need to accomplish it by.
    Burn-out: Nobody likes to be on a committee who's work will never end and just drifts from month-to-month.
    Goodbye Committees and Good Riddance!

    Apr 15, 2008
  • I've had the opportunity to serve on a board that had committees and then went to what we called "champions". Basically we took the same committees and identified Board members who felt strongly about those issues or topics and had them serve as "Champion" for it. They may, or may not, have met with other board members to get any work done in the category. They report, or advocate, at each Board meeting for the category and if there is specific work needed which requires more participation, then Board members can meet as a typical committee. Although the jury is still out, this seemed to have worked. What it also has done is free up a considerable amount of time during our 2 hour bi-monthly meeting for in depth discussion around strategic topics and issues. They may range from fund development to propery maintenance to strategic planning.

    Apr 16, 2008
  • Love this "Champion" idea. I know you posted this several years ago, but I am just now having it waved beneath my nose and I like the smell! :-)

    Jun 29, 2017
  • This concept was put forth by John Carver in 1990 in his book titled, "Boards That Make A Difference". In have been consulting with non-profits -- off and on -- for the last 10 years and whenever I have the opportunity to facilitate a board retreat, I introduce Carver's book. I normally tell them I'm standing on dangerous ground but I then demonstrate and advocate Carver's concept. His book remains relevant -- 18 years later & there may be an update.
    Carver's position is that the primary responsibility of a board is governance and the only operational issue for a non-profit board is the hiring (and firing) of the Executive Director -- of course that means monitoring the ED's performance, too. He contends that if there is a staff function that addresses personnel, budget, public relations, resource development, etc., it has no business being a committee of the board. Now, when I make this type of statement to a board, they generally start squirming and arching their backs. But, I feel my job is to show a board how it can truly make a difference and be true to their organization's vision and mission by establishing their role as the governance trustee and organizational "cheer leader". If a board does this, it cannot be silent and it doesn't have time to "nit pick".

    Apr 17, 2008
  • Over the last 8 years of founding an organization and then continuing to lead it as its Executive Director, I have found that when it comes to organizational structures, there is no one right way. My organization, Exhale, has found short-term or ad-hoc committees, focused on achieving a specific purpose or goal, to be the right strategy for us. We're a small organization, which prides ourselves on our "lean and mean" approach, and is very, very goal oriented. Ad-hoc committees fit our culture and have been a key strategy for meeting our objectives. I also know that many of my ED peers, especially ones that have bigger boards at larger organizations with long-standing community supporters and traditions for community involvement have found ongoing committees to be helpful and fruitful ways to achieve organizational goals. I think the decision about whether or not to have ongoing board committees is really about making sure that organizations have structures in place that work, and that are a match for its culture. Even more important, I'd say, is having leadership that is flexibile and willing to take a chance on trying something new, especially if what they have in place isn't getting them what they want. If organizations are having success with ongoing committees - fabulous. If not, try something new. On this subject, there may be pros and cons and tradition vs. innovation, but really, there is no right way. There are many ways. Find the ways that are best for your organization, and, as Tim Gunn would say, "make it work."

    Apr 21, 2008
  • Thanks for all these comments! I think we would all agree with AspenBaker that no one model seems to work for every organization. One of the things we try to do with Board Cafe is to explode the defaults and spark new thinking. The old model was to have everything done in committees, and for board meetings to consist primarily of reports from committees. This model is still echoed when you hear someone say, "Everything important should be discussed and resolved in committee!"

    This old model had an advantage :) of making committee chairs attend board meetings. But for many community organizations, over-emphasis on committees develops into a bureaucracy that no one can support and that doesn't work. But if an emphasis on committee work is working for you, don't change it. But if you have commitee reports like, "Well, our committee didn't meet," then maybe rather than admonishing that committee to meet, consider giving peeople a different way of approaching the tasks at hand.

    Apr 22, 2008
  • We do much work with community and assocation boards at Volunteer Vancouver, and although we have moved away from Carver and to the "Governance as Leadership" framework, we agree with DMallory with respect to committees often being more functional as those of staff. It is interesting to have staff and board work together on these committees - with the accountability almost always to the staff person. This also is a way to engage many more specifically skilled volunteers - that can ultimately learn about our organizations and then become engaged, talented board members.

    We also have learned a great deal about how many different kinds of organizations there are - and we agree with AspenBaker there is no one right way. There are many variations on what can work for our organizations given our history, the stage we are in our life cycle, and the culture we have developed. What matters is that we focus on truly engaging people in a way that works for our organization!

    Apr 28, 2008
  • Colleen:
    There is no one way, for sure. I think many board philosophies have
    been the "book of board shoulds" not the book of board "want tos". I
    loved Dick Chait's session that I attended at the Harvard Board
    Governance Excellence week and also very much believe in generative
    thinking by boards. Here is the deal, tho. For any of the models to
    work, there has to be true alignment among the board, the executive
    staff and the mission. I interviewed board members across three
    continents about their experience with nonprofit work. I have put their
    stories in my new book, "The Truth About What Nonprofit Boards Want"
    and talk there about what it takes to have all working in alignment.
    Working with boards to uncover what they really want to do and helping
    them do that along with helping the CEO understand their role in making
    the experience an excellent one is the way, I believe, to make the
    organization "sing".
    I would love your thougths! June

    Aug 11, 2009
  • Hello All:
    Interested in learning if any of you manage marketing committees and how you engage them. I recently took on the task of leading this group and have recruited new members--mostly communication profressionals. I call my groups, "working groups." This done in an effort to encourage more active vs passive behaviour that plagued this group in the past. I have found that the men on this group prefer the role of advisors, while the women are more proactive and want to get their hands dirty. It really has been surprising how stereotypical the behaviour has been! I'd love to hear some of the projects your groups have worked on. My challenge is that my group prefers to be told what to do, vs, taking a more proactive approach and looking at where we are missing the boat. I welcome your suggestions!

    Jun 02, 2008

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