30 Jan

Let’s Really Talk about Committees

Day in and day out, what boards can achieve is limited by their lack the (wo)man power to get things done. Why is this? Boards have a logical committee structure spelled out in their bylaws. Some common committees include: executive, finance, audit, nominating and/or governance, development, marketing, personnel, compensation, planning, program and legal.  In addition to the standing committees called for in the bylaws, organizations often also have the authority to create ad hoc committees (sometimes called working groups or task forces too). These are usually convened for a finite period of time to perform a discrete task such as hiring a new CEO or crafting a strategic plan.

On paper, it all looks good. All these committees should provide a lot of work power. Except that in real life too few committees are truly functional.

To be effective, committees must have the following:

  • A clear charge or purpose
  • Articulated goals
  • A work plan that outlines how the work will get done, when and by whom
  • A volunteer leader
  • Volunteers
  • A staff point person or liaison
  • Work time & meeting time
  • A clear understanding of reporting expectations to board  (when/how)

Here are some common real life board challenges:

  • Lack of Clear Charges for Committees
    • Fix: Articulate why does this committee exist? If it no longer relevant or can be combined with another committee’s work, remove it. If it is still necessary, articulate exactly what the board is delegating to the committee. Committee charges should be in writing. 


  • Board Members Serve (in Name) on Too Many Committee
    • Fix:
      • Reduce the number of committees.
      • Limit board members to serve on one committee until proven record of follow through.
      • Allow non-board members to serve on some committees.


  • Too Few Worker Bees on the Committee
    • Fix:
      • Committee members need job descriptions.
      • When asked to join, prospects need to know how many meetings and what work is anticipated
      • Publish a list of your committee and members
      • Don’t rush to get names on committee lists. Rather use committees as ways to create a pipeline to the board. Open membership to non-board members when appropriate and as a way to retain involvement by past board members.


  • No One Wants to Be Chair
    • Fix:
      • Consider co-chairs
      • Proceed with shared leadership model 


  • Scheduling Meetings in our Busy World
    • Fix:
      • Use technology to schedule (Doodle), meet (Zoom, Go To Meeting, Google Hangout) and share documents (Google Docs, DropBox). Also consider meeting before existing board meetings.
      • Staff members are increasingly playing administrative roles for committees. Clarify staff expectations and roles.


Committees are supposed to be the work horses of boards. When they don’t function properly then the executive committee, the board as a whole or the staff are often left picking up the pieces. Or is some scenarios, simply little progress is made.

Getting the committee structures correct, and populating them and managing them with the right people are the keys to strong governance and propelling your organization forward. To be sure, it is easier said than done.

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is President of Fridman Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching. She is a frequent speaker, trainer, workshop presenter and facilitator. Nanette is the author of “On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service.” She can be reached at



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