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One Committee Too Many?

The committee.  The workhorse of the nonprofit sector.  What would we do without it?  Today I'd like to ask, what do we do with it?

The lifeblood of the nonprofit is the human capital that steers it, funds it, and implements the program that benefits the public. Nonprofits, by their very nature, are labor intensive -- people connecting with people to benefit people.  

The organizational model of board-committees-volunteers-staff is as old as the nonprofit sector itself.  Although the internal and external environments of nonprofits are radically different from say, just twenty years ago, the basic organizational model has pretty much stayed the same.  As a result, I think that many organizations simply accept the model because that's the way it has always been whether or not it really facilitates work.  This is especially true with committees.

Committees have been the tried and true mechanism for marshaling organizational work and the volunteers that do it.  And most of us know these committees to be either standing (think permanent or continuous) committees or ad hoc (temporary) committees.  For many organizations, there are many more standing committees than ad hoc committees -- think inverted pyramid teetering on that tiny point.

Standard management advice tells us that holding meetings when there's no real business to accomplish is a waste of time.  That goes for committees, as well.  In fact, if there is no clear job to be accomplished, then perhaps there's no reason to have a committee anyway.  Well, duh.
Yet there are thousands of standing committees out there that have a life only on paper -- they may meet but don't accomplish much, they're chronically under-populated, they're the dumping ground for flunkie board members and volunteers, or they just don't meet at all.

So let's think about turning the pyramid right side up with the pointy end at the top.  The standing committees, now fewer in number, reside there.  At the broad base of the pyramid are the ad hoc committees, many more in number, task-specific, coming and going as the work requires.

The basic fundamentals for a solid standing committee system are these:

1.  committees are formed only when there is a need for ongoing oversight, policy generation and review 
2.  every committee has a mission statement or job description that flows from the organization's strategic plan
3.  every committee has a specific set of tasks to accomplish in a given period of time that flows from the annual workplan
4.  where possible, committees are populated with stakeholders as well as board members and attendant staff
5.  committees do not duplicate the work of staff

All other task-specific work gets done by the ad hocs -- temporary teams or work groups that dissolve when the task is complete allowing board and stakeholder expertise to be combined and recombined as new tasks arise.

Photo:  Pyramid Giza 018 by Kaki Bakar



Unknown said…
It has been a concern of mine for sometime - the future of committees. Especially in smaller communities where the committee is the only way people think thnnigs can be achieved. They offer structure and hierarchy but do not always encourage as much action as individuals acting cohesively.

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