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Committees essential, but the fewer the better


Sooner or later, nearly every nonprofit group organizes its board into committees -- and for good reason.

Boards normally cannot devote enough time or in-depth exploration to a single issue for all members to be fully informed. Committees equalize the workload and enable every member to be more involved. In my experience, greater involvement means more satisfied board members.

Committees, of course, cannot substitute for individual board members' responsibility to exercise prudent judgment. A committee can only recommend to the full board. The board then accepts, rejects or refers back to the committee for additional deliberation.

Given the complexity of today's charitable organizations, I can't imagine running one without adequate committee support.

I'm often asked by board members what I think is the right number of committees. There is no easy answer but, generally, the fewer the better. It is all too easy to break down a board into so many pieces that they lose their effectiveness.

Generally, boards have an executive committee, and standing committees for nominating (also called Committee of the Board), marketing, fund raising (also called development or resource development), finances, personnel and programs. All else is handled by ad hoc committees with set agendas and a predictable sunset.

If a board is small -- under 15, for example -- committees such as marketing and fund raising might be combined to ease the burden of too many separate meetings. Conversely, with a large board, individual members should be limited to two committees. Officers might serve on three. The operating principle is that members should be active and involved, but not overwhelmed.

One issue that often arises with committees is that of leadership. In my experience, committee chairmen tend to be far too lenient in terms of holding individual members to their work commitment. In some cases, the issue is one of mutual winking -- I don't hold you accountable if you promise to do the same with me. In other cases, it's a matter of excessive politeness.

Few things can slow an organization's progress as quickly as does a committee not nailing its stated goals. This often requires diligent monitoring of tasks by the chairman, and the willingness to confront those not performing up to expectations. This also assumes that the chairman is diligent about assigning due dates and one responsible individual to every committee task.

Another issue is the relationship between a committee and staff. Done right, staff supports committee work. The committee reports its policy recommendations to the board for approval; the staff implements those policy recommendations.

A committee should never manage staff, or make demands on staff, without going through the board chairman, who clears the request through the chief executive officer.

Another potential problem is communications among committees and with the board as a whole. Committee chairmen need toestablish regular informal contacts among themselves, so that one committee does not hold up the efforts of the next. Such communication is critical between the marketing and fund-raising committees.

I am a firm believer in dispensing with lengthy committee reports at each board meeting. If a board is working effectively, committee reports can be sent with the agenda before the meeting.

Only significant committee issues that require whole-board discussion or resolution should be placed on the agenda.

Putting only items of importance on the agenda is a major step toward improving board effectiveness. It also requires an expectation that board members will come prepared to every meeting.

Finally, committees work best when they set an annual agenda, with major goals and measurable objectives written for themselves and distributed to the board. This gives the committee a benchmark for measuring success, a process that every committee should go through at this time of year.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md. 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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