Should Most Standing Committees Stand Down?

How many standing committees are needed for effective governance?

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

Our board used the same committee structure from year to year
with little thought given as to what the committees do
or whether they were still relevant to the ministry.
We had gotten into a deep rut.

 

One ministry board fell in love with standing committees. Their CEO loved them too. To make matters worse, the board embedded a generous number of standing committees in the bylaws. Every time a significant issue arose, they added another standing committee.

Some of the standing committee members were current board members, past board members, or individuals who had never served on the board. The CEO was an ex officio member of each standing committee. One or two staff members also served on many standing committees on an ex officio basis.

Because of the complex network of committees, the board spent an inordinate amount of time scheduling committee meetings, attending committee meetings, appointing board members to the various committees, obtaining reasonable attendance at the committee meetings, and more.

The committees were fond of assigning research projects to staff. As a result, staff spent hundreds of hours each year studying issues that rarely ever resulted in committee action, let alone board action.

This all falls under the heading of a standing committee nightmare.

Here are a few key questions and answers:

  • How many standing committees should a board have? Standing committees are those committees that a ministry uses on a continual basis. They can be established in the ministry’s bylaws, in its Board Policies Manual, or in certain other ways.

A good rule of thumb is the fewer standing committees, the better. Only use a committee if it adds value. That tends to push work upward to the full board, which addresses two of the oldest complaints about boards: no substantive agenda items and boring meetings.[1]

The number of board-level committees a ministry should have depends upon many variables, including the age, type, and size of your ministry. Larger ministries tend to need and have more standing committees than smaller ministries.

A start-up or very small ministry may not need any standing committees. If an audit has not yet been performed for the ministry, no audit committee is needed. If the board is small—for example, five or six members—the board itself may care for the work of what a governance committee would do.

  • Which standing committees are most often used by boards? An executive committee is the most common. However, if the board meets monthly, there is rarely a need for an executive committee to serve between board meetings. Other popular committees are a finance/audit committee for reviewing finances and the audit, and a governance committee, with the responsibility to recommend new board members and to recommend revisions or additions to the Board Policies Manual.

  • When should ad hoc committees and task forces be used? Ad hoc committees and task forces are the most under-used board tools. They are formed for a limited period of time to address a specific need. Ad hoc committees or task forces are often formed to amend the bylaws, recruit a new CEO, develop a strategic plan, relocate the ministry, or form a new subsidiary.

Do not form a task force until and unless the board can clearly define a charter for its assignment. Without specificity, a task force may waste the precious time of board members with no measurable achievement.

When the work of the ad hoc committee or task force is completed, the committee or task force is dissolved. An ad hoc committee or task force may exist for less than a year or for a year or more depending on the extent of the work assigned to it.

  • What can a board do when excessive standing committees are required by the ministry bylaws? Bylaws can be amended. A board should not feel locked into bylaws that require too many committees. However, it is better to outline standing committees in the Board Policies Manual because the manual can be changed much more easily than the bylaws.

  • How often should a board review its committee structure? At least every few years, the board should look at the current committee structure and what the committees actually do. If there are overlapping responsibilities or limited work is being done, then it is time to realign the committee structure. Committees with no work should be abolished, and committees with overlapping work should be merged. Committees should not take on a life of their own, nor should they overshadow the board itself.

Each board must determine the committee structure that works best for the organization. The committee structure should be flexible and meet the changing needs of the ministry. There are a variety of options to choose from, and boards should be willing to experiment. Keep in mind that committees are meant to be tools boards use to get their work done. The right tool for today may not be the right tool for tomorrow. The challenge is in knowing which tool is best for the task at hand.

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Boards should use task forces and committees appropriately
as tools to get jobs done while remaining flexible and diligent
about the longevity and function of each group.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Ensure: Review your board committee structure to ensure that each committee is functioning effectively.

  2. Maximize: Modify the committee structure as needed in order to maximize the efficiency of the board.

  3. Use: Consider the use of a task force or ad hoc committee for assignments of a short-term nature.

 

Prayer

Lord, thank You for our board members
who faithfully serve as committee members,
and help us to maximize the effectiveness
of the committee and task force structure. Amen.
 

 

 

 

[1] Richard P. Chait, Thomas P. Holland, and Barbara E. Taylor, Improving the Performance of Governing Boards (Westport, CT: American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 1996), 1–2.

 

From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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