Committees Come With Plenty of Benefits

Boards are often effective at decision-making, but struggle with completing the work beforehand. That’s where committees come in. They also keep one board member with expertise in a specific area from shouldering all the work within that realm.

Build a Solid Committee Structure to Make it Work

As a general rule, boards should have one committee for every three members. Start with a finance committee and then add others as needed, while being mindful to disband a committee if it’s no longer needed. 

Relationships Are the Key to Committee Success

Prioritize the relationship between the committee and the board as a whole, and don’t let board meetings become rehashes of committee meetings. Also consider waiting until the next board meeting to pass any resolution a committee proposes. 

Get More From Your Board’s Committees

Webinar recap: Erik Hanberg, author of “The Little Book of Boards,” shares practical workflows and guidance for creating board committees and increasing effectiveness.

Design Lines

There’s a lot expected of nonprofit boards of directors. Of course, some board work requires the involvement of the entire group. But in many cases, a smaller, focused committee can accomplish more than the larger group. 

But how should boards structure their committees to ensure they’re as productive as possible? 

Earlier this month, Erik Hanberg, author of the best-seller “The Little Book of Boards,” joined us for our most recent ATLAS Leadership Series webinar. Drawing from more than 20 years in nonprofit governance, Hanberg shared practical guidance for creating and optimizing committee assignments.  

The session spanned myriad committee-related topics, including:

  • How to make committees the workhorse of your board
  • How to leverage your executive committee to the fullest
  • How directors and staff can best support committee work

Here, we’ll share some of the key takeaways from this session. 

There are Myriad Benefits to Board Committees

Hanberg kicked things off by discussing why it makes sense to have board committees in the first place.

It can be difficult to get true work done with a large group. This is even the case for smaller boards of eight or nine members. With committees, “you have the chance to roll up your sleeves and do some work,” Hanberg said.

According to Hanberg, committees relieve pressure on the board to work in a large group. In addition, committees relieve pressure on an individual board member to work alone. For example, there may be one board member with finance expertise who always gets tapped to take on finance-related work. 

“They can feel taken advantage of,” said Hanberg. “Committees allow burdens to be shared.” 

Creating a Solid Committee Structure is Foundational

According to Hanberg, there’s an “all too common – and not great – committee model.” A committee considers a change at their meeting. They recommend the change to the entire board at the next board meeting. There’s a 45-minute discussion, which involves lots of feedback and people taking sides. The board attempts to wordsmith the policy on the fly to make something pass. But the final vote is split. At the next committee meeting, members feel like their work didn’t matter, so they lose momentum.

“This structure can often lead to hard feelings and wasted time.”

Building a better committee structure is essential. 

Determine the Right Number of Committees 

It starts with determining the right number of standing committees. Hanberg advised attendees to “take the number of board members and divide by three. That’s a pretty good idea of how many standing committees you can fill.” This doesn’t include the executive committee.

Hanberg reminded attendees that some committees have non-board members, which he said is a good thing. “More board committees should use this as a way to invite people into the organization who aren’t yet ready or interested in board service.” 

Form the Right Committees – Starting with Finance 

What committees does a nonprofit board need? “Start with finance,” said Hanberg.” For starters, a treasurer can find great value with a finance committee to support them. In addition, creating a finance committee can be a great way to identify the next board treasurer.

“It’s way too common on boards that a treasurer is the only person that engages in the numbers. When the treasurer moves on, no one wants to step up because no one feels they’re engaged,” explained Hanberg. “If you have a finance committee, those people are likely next treasurers.”

Hanberg also recommends a governance or board development committee. Such a committee can spend half the year improving the governance of the organization and checking policies – and the other half focused on new member recruitment and orientation.

“This committee has the power to really level up the board with these two areas of focus,” said Hanberg.  

The third committee really depends upon the needs of the board and the organization. Some examples of additional committees include:

  • Membership
  • Fundraising
  • Strategic planning

Hanberg reminded attendees that committee structure isn’t set in stone. “Committees can change based on board priorities,” he said.

When do you know it’s time to let a committee fade? Hanberg said there are a few signs:

  • There’s a lack of committee business
  • A retreat restructures the board’s priorities
  • New staff capacity means questions can be handled at a different level 
  • There’s an opportunity to combine committees 

Determine Committee Scope

According to Hanberg, “committees make recommendations to staff or to the board.” Over time, committees become subject matter experts. Their job is to learn, advise and assist. This might involve rolling up their sleeves to help staff. For example, a fundraising committee might get together to stuff envelopes. 

Hanberg said it can be helpful for committees to establish a scope of work or goals for the year ahead. “Pick two or three things,” he said. Goals can be established by the committee – or by the board at a retreat. 

Additional Tips for Committee Structure

Hanberg offered some additional, practical tips for creating committee structure.

The first is to standardize committee meeting times – and honor them. “It’s important to have these standing meetings because there’s work to be done,” he said.

He also reminded attendees that board members have busy lives. When possible, there should be opportunities to do the work at the meeting, rather than sending the work home. 

Strong Relationships are Key to Committee Success

Strong, solid relationships are key to getting the most from your board committees. Organizations must consider how boards and executive directors can support the work of committees. 

For starters, organizations must consider the relationship between the committee and the board as a whole. Hanberg’s recommendation is to only give committees time on the agenda when they have an action item – for example, a recommendation to bring forward for discussion or a vote. Otherwise, the committee report should be written and submitted at least a week in advance to be included with the rest of the board packet.

“Don’t let board meetings become rehashes of the committee meetings every month,” advised Hanberg.

He also suggested the board consider a recommendation at one meeting – and then pass it at the next. While this is a big change for many boards, it’s the “secret sauce to empowering committee work.” In fact, this process circumvents the all-too-common board problem explored earlier. “It cuts 20-30 minutes out of a board conversation because there’s no pressure to pass it right now,” he said.

Hanberg also explored the relationship between committees and the executive director. He mentioned that committees provide executive directors with an outlet for ideas and “rogue” board members. “It’s a really nice outlet so you don’t have to be the bad guy,” said Hanberg. 

ED’s should come prepared to “staff” the committee. According to Hanberg, “it’s how you’re showing you’re doing the work of the organization.” In addition, EDs are responsible for preventing committees from going in different directions – and for nudging committee chairs, when needed. 

Activating the Executive Committee Must be a Top Focus

The executive committee is made up of the leaders of the board – usually the elected officers. Though this varies from board to board, it might include the president, vice president, president-elect, treasurer, and secretary.” 

The executive committee plays an important role in the effectiveness of the board – and the organization it serves.

According to Hanberg, the executive committee is “a group that can act in times of emergency.” But if they don’t collaborate prior to the emergency, they won’t be effective in the midst of it. It’s important for this group to establish a direction – and then check in with the board.

In more “regular” times, the executive committee can check in on the strategic plan and make sure board business is on track. This includes taking the lead on quarterly agenda planning. According to Hanberg, agenda planning “prevents one board meeting from getting too packed and keeps the business of the board structured.” 

The executive committee is also the committee that’s most focused on personnel. This includes “directing” the executive director, and leading their performance evaluations, and hiring a new executive director when necessary. 

Finally, the executive committee plays a key role in succession planning. “This group can identify the future leaders of the board,” said Hanberg. 

Is increasing diversity a priority on your board? If so, be sure to save your spot for our next Atlas Leadership Webinar, Building a More Diverse Board, featuring Breen Sullivan and Kat de Haën, co-founders of the Fourth Floor, a board seat exchange and director network for up-and-coming women directors.

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