How can our committees be most effective?

Committees are simply one way a governing board organizes itself to be more efficient and effective. To ensure that you’ll have a better idea of how effective your current committee structure is or could be answer the following questions.

Do we want committees, or can the full board deal with all business itself?

How does each standing committee’s purpose relate to our mission and goals? Remember that the organization’s needs will change periodically.

What benefit does each committee provide to the board and to the entire organization? Insist that all committees focus on activities that help the full board do its work.

Do any committees do duplicate work? They should supplement and build upon, not duplicate, work done by the staff or other committees. For instance, if you feel a need to form program committees, make sure they focus on evaluation.

Do we need to amend our bylaws or policies to reflect our decisions about committees? The bylaws, for example, might simply authorize the board to “create such standing or other committees or task forces as the board may determine from time to time and describe in its standing policies.” Then the standing rules would document the details of the various committees, including the function, size, membership, staffing, and appointment process for each one.

Selection of Members

Your organization’s governance committee might be charged with matching individual board members to the committees needs and with ensuring that each committee has the right mix of personalities. Often the board chair and the chief executive are best equipped to map out committee assignments and identify a potential chair. A good policy to include in bylaws might read, “The chair [or governance committee] shall appoint committee members and chairs, subject to the approval of the full board.”

For a committee to be effective, its chair must be a good manager of people and process, someone who feels confident in guiding committee members to accomplish the task in a timely fashion. The job requires extra homework, regular communication with staff members and the board chair, and a willingness to resolve conflicts among committee members. It is not an honorary role.

The bylaws should allow a board to appoint some committee members from outside the board. This practice enables you to bring on expertise that the board itself may not have an investment adviser for the finance committee, for example, if there is no separate investment committee. You will also be able to groom future board members and involve people who are willing to volunteer on a specific issue but are not yet ready to commit to the full role of a board member.

Because most board members are busy people, it’s best to ask each to serve on only one standing committee as part of his or her board responsibilities. They might also be appointed to an ad hoc task force that focuses on a one-time assignment or project.

Appropriate Roles

No matter what its specific duty, a committee speaks to the board, not for the board. In other words, committees cannot think and act as mini-boards. Although a standing committee may draft changes to organizational policies and present them to the board for adoption, they do not have the jurisdiction to set board policy. Another appropriate role for a committee involves serving as a sounding board for senior staff members, providing advice, when asked, to the person responsible for managing the area of the committee’s responsibility.

Advice to the staff, however, usually is offered when board members are wearing their volunteer hats , which applies to serving on committees. Consequently, staff members are free to solicit advice from many sources and other volunteers, not just from board committees.

The staff liaison still reports to the chief executive, not to the committee, and only helps the committee fulfill its assignment.

Some organizations that have few staff members require the chief executive to serve as the liaison to most committees. Larger organizations typically have an executive whose role matches the committee’s area of responsibility and is asked by the chief executive to staff the committee. The board might set a policy that the chief executive will assign a staff member to work with each committee chair in preparing agenda material, maintaining good communications, and preparing minutes.

The specialized focus of committees enables board members to delve into specific areas and develop wise recommendations for board policy. In this way, committees usually add to a board member’s enjoyment of board service.


1. Board members, clarify in your bylaws or policies why you have committees and which should be ongoing, standing committees. The board may decide some are no longer necessary.

2. Board members, consider how you might use temporary,

or special, committees or task forces to focus on a project or topic that does not fit into the current committee structure.

3. Board members, review the charge issued by the board to each committee, to ensure that it is both specific and appropriate.