How to Staff and Support a Committee

Is staffing a committee more like herding cats or like herding turtles? Actually it's more like Dancing with the Stars.An important skill for nonprofit managers is knowing how to support a committee of volunteers, such as an Advisory Committee, a Board Finance Committee, or a coalition:

Staff at many levels support your organization's volunteer committees. For instance, an administrative assistant may support a committee that is planning the spring fundraiser. Or the CFO may support the board Finance Committee. And, of course, the executive director supports the board.

When supporting a committee, the most seductive trap for a staffperson is to take it over. After all, you probably know more than many of the committee members and you may feel frustrated with their inconsistent participation. The crucial concept to remember is that the goal is not simply to get through the committee's agenda, but to support the empowerment and development of the committee.

Here are some useful tips to help you "lead from below":

1. Learn about and stay up to date with your committee members:

  • Set a Google Alert on each member and follow them on Twitter. Whether they're getting an award from the PTA or making a donation to a candidate, you'll want to know. If it sparks a question you can ask, even better.
  • Have your manager brief you on each committee member. What should you try to bring out (or avoid) in each person?
  • Learn how they like to be contacted: Email? Phone? If there are hardcopy materials, where should they be mailed?

2. Manage the logistics perfectly:

  • For in-person meetings, be sure that the agenda, location and directions, contact information, discussion materials, and so forth, are sent with adequate advance time.
  • Follow the committee chair's lead on how to manage documents, and let committee members know you are using that guidance: "At Stephanie's suggestion, board materials will be emailed in a single PDF a week ahead of meetings but we'll provide hardcopies at the meeting, too."
  • Remember, committee members often don't directly observe the organization's work, so what they do observe becomes magnified in importance. "If the staff can't photocopy things properly," a committee member might ask himself, "can I trust them to work properly with the teenagers that we serve?"
  • Have appropriate refreshments like fruit, cheese, and crackers. Don't make them too skimpy or too lavish, or hard to eat. Ask your committee chair for suggestions.

3. Help the committee chair to lead the committee effectively:

  • Ask the committee chair if he would like you to prepare draft agendas for his review, or if he would like to do the first draft.
  • Memos to the committee should ideally be authored and sent by the chair, but you can also write memos for her signature (after her review) and pass them along: "I'm sending along this recap of responsibilities from Karen."
  • If you take meeting minutes or notes, ask the chair what level of detail she wants, and to give you feedback on drafts.
  • Develop a rolling, year-long calendar for you and the committee chair. Here's an example for a board finance committee:
    • April: in-person meeting to review first quarter financial statements. Give guidance to staff as appropriate.
    • May: conference call to discuss drafts of audit and management letter (if there is one)
    • June: in-person meeting to discuss financial policies, such as review/revision/creation of finance procedures manual, investments policy, cash management policy, banking relationships, etc.

4. During the meeting:

  • Sit at the table at the opposite end of the committee chair, unless she asks you to sit next to her.
  • If taking notes, don't keep your head down; pay attention to the conversation. Use body language to show you are attentive, such as nodding or smiling at a speaker who has made a funny comment. If you look at your computer or notebook the whole time it may look like you're answering email or doodling during the meeting.
  • Resist the temptation to jump in whenever there is a question or problem. For instance, if the committee chair is not present on a conference call, ask the people present what they would like to do, or even suggest, "Brad, perhaps you could chair this conference call for us until Steve gets here?" Remember, your job is to empower and support the committee doing its job, not to do its job for them.

5. After the meeting:

That day or the next, send a quick email to the committee chair pointing out something positive about the meeting. Example: "That was a good discussion yesterday. I'm writing up the notes . . . okay if I send them out next week?"

6. If you support a committee of the board, help your committee chair succeed at the board meeting:

Before a board meeting, ask your committee chair if there are materials she'd like you to include in the board packet or have available to be distributed at the meeting. Have a quick phone call a week before to give the committee chair a chance to think out what he will be presenting at the board meeting, and whether he wants you to speak or not. An unprepared committee chair will feel embarrassed if her section at the board meeting doesn't go well, so help her and the committee (and you) look good there.

7. Maintain clear job boundaries:

The committee is generally not your main supervisor and does not control your time. If the committee or chair asks you to take on a large piece of work, remind them: "I'll need to check with my boss to make sure it's okay for me to do this given my other responsibilities."

8. Be an advocate for your committee and its volunteer members: Is there a volunteer recognition event coming up? Make sure your committee members are invited. Are staff mulling over an issue? Suggest, "This would a good topic to bring to the Advisory Committee!"

9. Think "Dancing with the Stars:"

In this popular television show, a professional dancer is paired with a celebrity such as a television actor, an athlete, or singer who is typically not very good at dancing. The professional dancer fails if he or she tries to compensate for the amateur dancer by dancing twice as well. Instead the couple that wins has a routine that makes the most of the amateur's ability and the professional supports that ability.

In other words, you can't compensate for a weak committee or weak chair by doing the work for them. Instead you'll need to talk to your manager about changing the leadership of the committee and recruiting different members for it.

Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado. She has staffed many committees and learned much from seeing good leadership. She has also taken a lot of aspirin. She is a fan of footballer Jerry Rice, seen here on Dancing with the Stars.

Comments (6)

  • Anonymous

    It is amazing to me how rarely committee management is addressed as an important job skill in the nonprofit sector.

    Dec 17, 2013
  • Oh, thank you and I so agree! Jan

    Dec 17, 2013
  • Anonymous

    I agree completely!!

    Dec 18, 2013
  • Anonymous

    I love the DWTS analogy - it's so true!

    Dec 17, 2013
  • Anonymous

    THANK YOU. This is brilliant and incredibly helpful in so many ways!!

    Apr 27, 2014
  • Anonymous

    This was very helpful. Thanks!

    Jul 28, 2016

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