The hidden strength of a board of directors of a non-profit organization is determined by the way the committees of the board function and how they carry on the governance processes of the agency. Many chairs and directors of organizations view committees as a necessary evil, at best and look upon committee meetings as a burden to be tolerated in order to meet the minimum standards for operating a voluntary agency, at its worst. Committees can be a real asset to any organization if they are structured in a correct way to meet the needs of the organization and its lay leadership.

Committees should be organized to assist in the governance of the agency:

  • to provide for added accountability;
  • to insure transparency;
  • to provide for financial sustainability;
  • to build in a process for bringing new leadership to the organization;
  • to facilitate the organization’s role in public issues facing the community;
  • to review the range of services offered and if they are being utilized by the community, among other vital functions.

Many boards have two types of committees, standing committees and ad hoc committees. Standing committees are usually permanent work groups that meet on a regular basis throughout the year and carry on their work as determined by the by-laws, the needs of the agency, and the committee members. Standing committees might include an executive committee (composed of the officers of the organization and specific committee chairs); finance committee; program committee; fundraising or development committee; nominating committee; public issues committee and any other committee the agency determines it needs to have meet on an ongoing basis.

Ad hoc committees are generally formed to deal with pressing issues or special events. For example, every few years a board may want to update the by-laws; develop a new strategic plan; search for a new chief executive officer and/or plan for a special event. These committees function for as long as it takes them to accomplish their task and then they will cease to function and “go out of business.”

The establishment of committees is only the first step and the success of the process is dependent on the lay leaders and the professional staffing assigned to the committee. The lay membership should be determined by matching the knowledge, skills, abilities and interests of the people with the purpose of the committee. The professional assigned to staff the process should have a clear understanding of the role to be played in facilitating the work of the committee.

The combination of the joint leadership of the committee chair and the professional staff member allows for the development of a process focusing on the building of an agenda; a realistic timeline of bench marks to measure the progress of the group; the facilitation of the group discussions leading to decisions; and finally to appropriate action taken by the committee. When the group has a sense of accomplishment this affirms their commitment to the agency and to the services provided to the community.

By devoting appropriate time to the structuring of committees, the assigning of staff and the utilization of the accomplishments the agency’s governance structure and board are strengthened.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W. is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a private consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.