Q: How many board committees should our nonprofit have?
A: As few as you need.
Lots of Executive Directors and Board Chairs make what turns out to be a burdensome mistake by setting up a traditional board structure with lots of committees. There’s Finance, Development, the Executive Committee, the Audit Committee, and Board Recruitment and Development, and then sometimes a Gala Committee, the Program Committee, an Advisory Board, and more. Especially in organizations with just a few paid staff, what often happens is that board members get spread thin, you get a lot of “committees” of one or two, and everyone loses track of purpose and focus.
Instead, consider a structure (and board culture) in which the ED and Board Chair are tracking a small number of focused committees in which the purpose and the short-term objectives are clear, a volunteer committee chair takes responsibility for setting the right number and frequency of meetings — and reports key recommendations back to the board. Keep the option open to create Working Groups or Tasks Forces when needed. See Boards Should Only Have Three Committees (LaPiana) and Is it Time to Abolish Board Committees? (Blue Avocado).
Finance Committee chaired by the Treasurer and staffed by the CFO or ED. Try to include at least one person who doesn’t self-identify as a “numbers person” to deepen financial understanding on the board and to build in common sense critique of the financial choices.
Development and External Engagement Committee chaired by another board member and staffed by the CDO or ED.
Governance Committee that guides the board’s development and functioning (e.g. recruitment, orientation, finance and fundraising training) chaired by another board member.
Executive Committee that meets only when needed, and around Executive Director support and performance assessment. Chaired by the Board Chair.
Guiding Principles for Board Committee Structure
Here are a handful of guiding principles for designing (or redesigning) your board’s committee structure — a list that might be a good discussion item at the next board (or Governance Committee) meeting:
- The board focuses on governance and strategic direction, not management. In general, this means that the board monitors and provides counsel to management and rarely gets involved in the day-to-day affairs of the organization. See What’s the Point of a Nonprofit Board, Anyway? (Jan Masaoka)
- Board members, together, as a body, share a collective role with governance and stewardship responsibilities. In addition, board members have separate, different roles and responsibilities as individual leadership volunteers. The Board Chair facilitates, organizes, and supports the board (he/she does not direct the staff or dictate policy).
- The board has one employee (the ED) and the ED has one employer (the board as a whole). Board members do not hold individual governing power or authority over any staffmember. Or over the budget.
- The board operates as a team, facilitated by the Board Chair. Effective board chairs study up on teamwork and collaboration theory, as well as meeting facilitation skills.
- The board assesses its own performance regularly, in informal ways (e.g. what worked in this meeting? what should we do differently in the future) and formal ways (e.g. end of the year board self-assessment rubric). And makes improvements.
The Board Committees
- The board creates committees to help accomplish the Board’s job, not the ED’s job. See Six Principles for Nonprofit Boards (Jonathan D. Schick).
- Nonprofit organizations generally operate best with a small number of standing committees (i.e. three or four), and Working Groups or Tasks Forces when needed.
- Ideally, each board member serves on just one committee (and two, if a member of the Executive Committee). And every committee has at least three members. One person does not a committee make.
- If you have an Executive Committee of the officers, it represents the full board. It must be careful not to take over the collective decision-making function of the full board, except in rare circumstances when urgent interim decisions must be made. In addition, this committee can take leadership responsibility for assessing and supporting the performance of the Executive Director.
- Steer clear of board “program” committees. Program design and implementation work is best left to staff (see Guiding Principle 2).
- Consider ditching the standard Fundraising Committee because you want every board member working on fundraising tasks. The “fundraising committee” is the Board of Directors! Your expectation is that each board member gives, gets, and when his/her term ends, gets off to make room for fresh leadership. Or instead of ditching it, maybe get clear that this committee’s purpose is to plan and coordinate the fundraising activities of board members (as opposed to doing all the fundraising).
- In nonprofits with small staffs, committee chairs must share committee administration with staff, and keep notetaking and such to the essentials. In larger organizations, assign a staff member to support each committee and working group.
- Invite a few non-board members to serve on some committees (but for governance reasons, not of course, the Executive Committee). Doing so enables your organization to build stronger relationships with community leaders — leaders who could become future board members and leading donors.
- Acknowledge the inherent challenges that come along with board volunteers. A. They are volunteers, so appreciate their efforts and help them perform. Most of the time, they want to do a good job and make a difference, but usually they truly do not know (or do not believe that they know) what to do, when, or how. B. They are always and sincerely busy, so give them lead time and be honest and clear (and remindery) about deadlines. You wanted them because they have smarts and connections. Smart and connected people have a lot of demands on their time. Your organization should be one of their priorities, but it is just one of them. C. If you don’t know where to start with your board members (I’m talking to you, ED, and to you, Board Chair), then just meet with them, one-on-one. Yes, each of them. You can do it over the course of a quarter. Coffee or tea and have a cookie together. Simply sitting down builds trust, ask for feedback and input about the organization’s goals and work, ask what they would most like to do for and with the organization; share with them your priorities and vision, ask for specific help; remind them of the board roles and rules, and of the organization’s expectations for each member.
- Structure your board committees and build a governance culture in ways that support effective teamwork, renewal and that encourage a shared focus on results and impact.
- Help board members understand (Board Chairs, I am talking to you) that they understand when and how to regulate their assistance and governance with the staff. Like Goldilocks — not too much, not too little, but just right. See Tale of the Super-Involved Board (Vu Le).
- Not everyone agrees with me on this one, but I am convinced, so share it with you: Expect about 1/3 of your board members to rock, going above and beyond! Expect about 1/3 to be fairly consistent and to do what’s expected most of the time reasonably well. And expect about 1/3 to flake, be inconsistent, or drop off. See The Curious Case of the Disappearing Board Member (Vu Le). Don’t judge, try for better, but plan for this average.