Com­mit­tees … love them, or hate them

I actu­al­ly like committees.

Written by
Simone Joyaux
November 15, 2013
Effective committees are good, maybe even lovable.

Well, let me rephrase that statement: I like effective committees. And I believe it’s the staff’s job to make committees effective.

Staff enables committees to function effectively, productively and successfully. (There’s that enabling word again, see right. And for details and examples, see the chapter in my book Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, third edition, John Wiley & Sons, USA, 2011.)

So here are some of my favourite thoughts about committees.

1. Board committees help the board carry out corporate governance. For more information about corporate governance go to my website and visit the free download library:

The board’s committees report to the board and the board directs and controls these committees. I want a finance committee and a governance committee. I want a fund development committee, too. You’ll find job descriptions for the governance and fund development committees on the right. And check out my previous column in Nonprofit Quarterly on the governance committee.

I don’t want any other regular, ongoing board committees. When corporate governance issues arise that warrant group exploration, I set up ad hoc task forces. For example, I set up one to carry out the CEO’s annual performance appraisal.

I might set up a personnel task force to review personnel policies. Any task force meets two to three times, finishes its work and goes out of business.

2. Effective committees don't waste board time by making reports. Send reports to board members and they can read them. Effective committees engage the board in strategic conversation about strategic issues. In my scenario, committees appear on the agenda of the board only if there’s a strategic conversation to be had.

3. Effective committees don’t just make recommendations to the board. Sometimes committees refuse to make a recommendation. Instead, the committee explores options and engages the board in conversation. Then the board decides.

Mostly, I expect committees to engage the board in strategic conversation. That means the committee has to provide background information and set the context for conversation.

4. Committees do not direct or supervise staff. Staff directs and supervises staff.

5. A board member chairs a board committee. Board members serve on the committee. But non-board members can serve on committees, too. That’s a great way to build your organisation’s reach and identify new candidates for board membership.

6. The committee chair and member of staff assigned to the committee are partners providing leadership to the committee.

7. At the end of each committee meeting, I recommend that the committee explore the following:
- Does the board need to make a decision based on something we, the committee, have explored? If yes, will the committee recommend a decision to the board and seek the board’s reaction to the recommendation? Or, should the board have a strategic conversation facilitated by information from the committee and the board then decides?

- Do we, the committee, need to help build the board’s understanding and ownership, but no action is necessary at this time?

- Do we, the committee, need to inform/expose the board to something now? And at some point in the future, the board might make a decision about something?

When a task force has finished its work, it shuts up shop.

So that’s my spiel about committees that help the board carry out corporate governance.

But what about committees like marketing or programme? I think marketing is, most definitely, a management responsibility. And if the CEO or marketing director wants to set up a committee of experts, go for it. That’s a management committee that reports to management.

And what about a programme committee? After all, the board is responsible for the health and effectiveness of the corporation – and ensuring an appropriate programme and programme quality are certainly central to corporate health.

But programme committees can be dangerous. It’s too easy to move into management. So I don’t recommend setting up a board-level programme committee.

Yes, the board talks about the programme. Yes, part of corporate governance is ensuring the quality and effectiveness of the programme (which is, after all, the way you carry out your mission). But we don’t need a committee to do that. Issues and topics can go directly to the board without going through a committee.

And finally, if you don’t see the mention of an executive committee in this column, you’re reading correctly. I’m on a worldwide mission to destroy all executive committees.

About the author: Simone Joyaux

Simone Joyaux

The late, great Simone P Joyaux, ACFRE was described as ‘one of the most thoughtful, inspirational, and provocative leaders in the philanthropic sector’. A consultant who specialised in fund development, strategic planning and board development, Simone guided countless organisations and professionals during her many years of consulting and coaching, teaching and writing. She taught in the graduate programme for philanthropy at Saint Mary’s University, in Minneapolis, USA. Her books included Keep Your Donors, Strategic Fund Development and Firing Lousy Board Members. As a volunteer, Simone founded the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, a social justice organisation. Simone and her life partner bequeathed their entire estate to charity. You can find more of Simone’s writing in SOFII’s Simone Joyaux archive, here

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