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Do You Have the Right Standing Board Committees? First, Ask the Four Questions…

Amy Schiffman
July 20, 2017

Summer is a great time to consider your standing board committee structure and review the reference to committee types, executive committee makeup and committee charters in your board’s by-laws. Why? Because what made sense 5, 10, or even 20 years ago might not make sense today. Your committee structure should very closely reflect the current work of the board. If it does not, it’s time to consider a by-laws revision.

Before even reviewing your current standing committee organizational chart (Don’t have one? Create one! We have provided a sample as this week’s freebie!), I suggest you spend time with your board and senior administrators discussing the following 4 questions:

  1. What is our primary role as a board today? How has it changed over the past few years?
  2. What does the organization need of us in order to best fulfill its mission?
  3. How can we best self-organize (as individuals, committees and as a board team) in order to fulfill these responsibilities?
  4. How will we partner with our professional counterparts in order to provide optimal value?

Once you have the answers to these questions, take a look at your standing committee org chart. Do your committees reflect the roles and work you outlined with your team? If not, why not? The number one mistake boards make in determining standing board committees is that they confuse board work with the work that other volunteers/committee members can provide. For example, you may have need for a facilities committee (or even just volunteers with knowledge about facility development and maintenance), but must the facilities committee function as a standing committee of the board? Is it central to the work of the board? Most of the time, the answer is no, yet I often see facilities committees showing up in standing board committee lists.

Committees that are not seen as critical to the work of the board, yet serve as excellent opportunities for volunteers to lend their skills, talents and interests to the organization, are often deemed “ad hoc” or advisory in nature. These committees may not meet as regularly as standing board committees, they may or may not be chaired by a board member, and are often made up of mostly non-board members. Ad hoc and advisory committees serve as great opportunities to vet future board members. The education/curriculum committee of an independent school is another good example of a committee that should probably not show up as a standing committee of the board, but may meet from time to time to consider new curriculum, policy changes or concerns. This committee might not be made up of board members, but rather professionals in the field with subject matter knowledge who would ultimately bring recommendations back to the board. However, don’t confuse a great volunteer with a great board member – they are not one and the same. Board members should be held to higher (and often quite different) standards than committee members and other volunteers.

The bottom line on this issue is that most organizations hope their boards will engage in capacity building, relationship development, leadership development and budgetary oversight, and so the standing board committee structure should reflect these priorities. Therefore, if your standing board committees expand far beyond a) governance/board development, b) fundraising/development, c) marketing/communications, d) finance and e) executive committees (and possibly strategic planning), ask yourself why. Make a case for their place on your standing committee org chart or send me a note so that we can discuss! And don’t confuse subcommittees for standing committees, i.e., the audit and HR committees should be subcommittees of finance. The alumni committee is a subcommittee of development and the executive director/head of school support and evaluation committee is a subcommittee of the executive committee.

Last, every board member should be assigned to at least one standing committee and your executive committee should be made up of the chairs of each of your standing committees (which are always chaired by board members). That way, the core work of the board is represented on the executive committee. The old school VP, secretary, and treasurer roles are a thing of the past (unless the treasurer is the chair of your finance committee, which makes sense). Positions on the executive committee should directly relate to the work of the board and the means by which it has organized itself.

Make sense? If not, feel free to send me a note. And don't forget to download this week's freebie: A Sample Standing Board Committee Organizational Chart.