Twenty years ago, committees certainly didn’t make my top-ten list of factors that influence governing board effec­tiveness. Experience has educated me, and now I number well-designed standing committees among the top five determinants of governing board success. When properly designed and deployed, they function as the governing engines of successful nonprofits; here’s how:

  • Committees enable a board to divide the very complex work of governing into “chewable” chunks, making it possible for board members to acquire in-depth know­ledge and expertise in the broad governing functions, such as planning and performance monitoring, as well as providing board members with a greater opportunity for proactive involvement in shaping important governing judgments and decisions than is possible in board plenary sessions.
  • As a consequence of their enhanced governing know­ledge and expertise, along with their more proactive involve­ment, board members feel much stronger ownership of, and commitment to, their governing work.
  • Well-designed committees ensure thorough preparation for full board meetings, thereby elevating the level of full board discussion and decision making.
  • Stand­ing committees can serve as vehicles for contin­uously fine-tuning and improving the detailed governing work in their respective governing areas, such as board self-management and performance monitoring.

Committees Must Be Well-Designed   
In the organizational development business, there’s a classic rule that has proved its usefulness in practice: Organizational form must correspond to organizational function if you want that organization to succeed at carrying out its mission over the long run. Following the form follows function rule, you will want to organize your board’s standing committees by the streams of decisions and judgments that the board makes: the board’s direction and man­agement of its own operations as a governing body; strategic and operational planning; financial and programmatic perfor­mance monitoring; and external relations.

Make sure that your board’s standing committee structure possesses what I call “horizontal discipline,” which means that each standing committee’s purview is organization-wide, cutting across all programs and administrative functions. Strategic and operational planning is for the whole organization, not specific parts of it. Performance monitoring is done for all programs and administrative units, and so on.

I’m not certain why many boards ended up with the old-time silo structure of narrowly focused programmatic and administrative committees, such as the conference or education committee of an association; the curriculum and instruction or personnel committee of a school district; the rail operations or paratransit committee of a public transportation agency; the skilled nursing or assisted living committee of an aging services nonprofit. But I do know that the silo structure is a real enemy of high-impact governing, because it narrowly focuses the attention of board members, mak­ing organization-wide analysis and comparative decis­ion-making well-nigh impossible and creating a clear and present danger that the good of the whole organ­ization will be sacrificed to parochial concerns.

A Model Structure 
A large, highly respected, and growing local nonprofit providing services to the blind and visually impaired has put in place a structure of five standing committees that match the broad governing functions of the board and promote cross-cutting horizontal discipline.

  • Board Operations Committee
    Headed by the Board Chair and consisting of the Board Chair-Elect, Treasurer, Secretary, and Immediate Past Chair, the Chairs of the Planning and Program Devel­opment, Performance Oversight and Monitoring, and External Relations/Resource Development Committees, and the President & CEO as an ex officio member, the Board Operations Committee is essentially a committee on the management and coordination of the Board of Directors. In this capacity, the Board Operations Committee is responsible for continuous development of the board’s governing capacity, board human resource development (nominating candidates to fill board vacancies and devel­oping board member governing skills), the coordination of board and standing committee operations, and for maintenance of the Board-President & CEO working relationship, including annual evaluation of CEO perfor­mance and determination of CEO compensation. The Board Operations Committee may take action on behalf of the full board in true emergency situations when it is not feasible to assemble a quorum of the full Board.
  • Planning and Program Development Committee
    The Planning and Program Development Committee is responsible for working closely with the President & CEO in designing and overseeing a strategic planning process; coordinating the board’s participation in the organization’s operational planning and budget preparation process; and for recommending adoption of the annual budget to the board.
  • Performance Oversight and Monitoring Committee
    The board’s Performance Oversight and Monitoring Committee is responsible for working closely with the president & CEO in designing programmatic and financial performance reports that are appropriate for board review and for monitoring the performance of all of the organ­ization’s programs and administrative units.
  • External Relations/Resource Development Committee
    The board’s External Relations/Resource Development Committee is concerned both with public relations and fund raising, including donor relations. It is responsible for clarifying the organization’s desired public image in the eyes of clients, the public-at-large and key stakeholders; for overseeing the formulation of strategies to promote the image; for maintaining effective communication and work­ing relationships with important stakeholders, including actual and prospective donors; for recommending policy positions in the governmental relations/legislative arena; and for overseeing the formulation of strategies to promote active volunteer involvement in the nonprofit’s affairs.
  • The Audit Committee
    Reporting directly to the Board of Directors, the Audit Committee consists of three members who are nominated by the Board Operations Committee and elected by the board, and who are not members of the Board Operations Committee.The Audit Committee is responsible for selecting the organization’s external audit firm and for overseeing the external audit process.

(This article is adapted from chapter four of Doug Eadie’s book, Meeting the Governing Challenge, Governance Edge, 2007.)

© Doug Eadie; all rights reserved