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Committee Job Descriptions: The Essence of Group Work

I'M SPENDING SOME TIME THIS MORNING DRAFTING COMMITTEE JOB DESCRIPTIONS, or charges, for a nonprofit organization whose committees have been working without the benefit of this important tool.  You might be saying to yourself, if committees are functioning, why gum up the works with wonky job descriptions?  Isn't that just one more layer of red tape that few people pay attention to, much less care about?

I could respond by saying that committee job descriptions, just like employee job descriptions and board of trustee job descriptions, have the potential for strangling enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing until it sloshes over unrequested into the work of others, or when it distorts organizational focus to the point where no one is sure where they're headed or why.  I see this very simple tool as a means of harnessing enthusiasm, not curbing it.

At their best, committee job descriptions provide parameters (broad or specific) that help organizational leaders see how all the parts of their nonprofit universe fit together.  Job descriptions reveal what committees have overlapping or complementary functions (like executive and nominating or board development committees, or education and communication committees, or program and fund development committees); others may not seem to overlap quite so visibly, but all should clearly be supporting the organization's mission and external impact. 

This morning, I'm contemplating the overlaps of an existing committee that has responsibility for ongoing member and stakeholder communications, but also is charged with some program development for the membership.  This is an organization that also engages in very specialized programming for its members, which is generally handled by special committees or task forces.  I wonder if there ought to be an overarching program committee instead, of which communications might become a sub-committee.  I'm not convinced that it should, or could, be the other way around.

Without the job description for guidance, I probably wouldn't be thinking so deeply about the committee roles for this organization, about what the organization needs in terms of committee support, and about why committees are critical to the work and impact of this organization.

There's value in drilling down, in no small part because almost all nonprofit boards and staff need the expertise and wide-angle view that committees, task forces and work groups can provide.  Without a clear understanding of a committee's potential, and how that potential fits into the whole, we are just as likely to squander its value as we are to tap into it.  But who would know, without a yardstick by which to measure effectiveness?  Why take that chance?

Of course, a job description is only one element.  If not used by the committee and attendant staff as the guide it's meant to be, the group's expertise and energy can be expended it all sorts of useful or worthless or harmful ways as if there was no written job description in the first place.

So, get started!  As a full board, make the time to review your organization's committee job descriptions.  Don't be off-put if they need some work, especially if you haven't reviewed them in awhile (or ever).  CompassPoint's 1999 article on "Board Committee Job Descriptions" and the Center for Association Leadership's "Board Committee Structure" (2006) are excellent starting points.  Seek out committee job descriptions from other nonprofits in your community or discipline.  Get a handle on new trends for committee work.  

Finally, I like these recommendations about committees found in "Thoughts on Great Committees" from the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy.

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