I once worked at a nonprofit organization that had 11 standing board committees. The board also required nearly every significant decision staff made to be approved by the appropriate committee who then needed their decision approved by the board. Wasn’t that efficient and fun for everyone involved? It doesn’t have to be that way.
I’ve been working with a number of nonprofit clients recently and the challenge of board roles and committee structure bubbles to the surface again and again. Committees exist on paper, members named, but they don’t meet regularly. Or, they meet, but don’t do much. Or, they meet and have developed a micromanaging approach that doesn’t serve the organization well. And when committees aren’t functioning it has a cascading effect on the board and the organization.
How Many Committees?
One of the questions I hear all the time is “How many committees should we have?” My response, “How many committees do you you need?” I don’t believe there is a magic number. Organizations differ in complexity, mission and structure. When it comes to committees I do believe less is more. I encourage organizations to operate with the fewest number of committees possible and to focus on making sure those committees are highly functional. For some organizations the number of committees can really be as few as two to three. Some clients–at very small organizations with no history of running successful committees–I encourage to form only one committee. Unless you are involved in a very large or very complex organization, I can’t imagine having more than five standing committees.
Again, the answer is highly variable based on the organization’s needs. Here are my suggestions for a minimal approach to board committees.
- Executive Committee–This group can be made up of the board officers and/or the standing committee chairs. The group’s decision-making authority needs to be clearly defined so that it doesn’t become the de facto board or inactive because of no sense of purpose. This group can help expedite decisions and work to bring solid recommendations to the board for discussion.
- Development Committee–If long-term, sustainable funding is necessary–Hint: It is–this committee is key. This is not a “fundraising” committee. Fundraising is the responsibility of every board member and staff member, not just a few folks on one committee. The development committee needs to be supporting fundraising efforts, but they also need to be thinking about long-term funding, revenue streams and opportunities to collaborate or innovate.
- Finance Committee–While each board member’s responsibilities include staying abreast of the financial situation, we all know from experience that dollars just aren’t everyone’s forte. A strong finance committee can support budget development, keep the long-term financial objectives of the organization in mind and help board members understand the financial reports.
- Ad Hoc Committees–One of the greatest complaints I hear from nonprofit board members is about serving on committees that have no purpose. You can fix that. Form and disband board committees as needed. Special event, staff reorganization, by-laws review? Form a committee with an explicit purpose for a finite time. It’s amazing the number of engaged committee members you can find when they know it is not a permanent commitment.
If you plan to address committee structure issues, I encourage you to start small, work hard and stick with it. One successful committee experience can help pave the way for others. As with all change, getting committees rolling will take time. It is time well spent.
Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes. Contact us today to see how we can help with your nonprofit board or staff development. True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.