Planning a Successful Committee Process

In response to last week’s posting on evaluating and strengthening the board of directors of a nonprofit organization, I received these questions about the workings of the board: How does the board get its work done when it depends on the commitment of volunteer leadership? What process is employed to ensure due process and consensus decision making so there is a minimal amount of tension and divisiveness in the committee? Developing a planning process in a strategic way and coordinating the work of the committees, with the agenda established annually by the board of directors, are key to addressing those questions.

Ideally, the by-laws of the nonprofit organization name the standing committees and define their purpose. These are the committees that focus on the ongoing business of the board. For example, a finance committee handles the budgeting process and monitors the receipts and disbursements on a regular basis. Most finance committees meet once a month, with the chairperson working very closely with the agency’s bookkeeper or accountant depending on the staffing of the organization.

If fundraising is not part of the finance committee then there may be a resource development committee that has responsibility for raising the necessary funds on an annual basis. It is very common for nonprofits to have a professional services committee that reviews the services provided to members and clients and makes decisions about cutting back or expanding services. When this committee does not have responsibility for reviewing the professional staff positions and ensuring there is an appropriate staff component to implement the services, then there may be a personnel committee.

The personnel committee generally reviews both the compensation packages that staff members receive and the salary scale of the organization. Given the number of times that salary and compensation packages come under review in the media, it is essential that the board take responsibility for salaries and benefits in nonprofit organizations. It is not only important for there to be transparency but also for the community to know that the board is accountable for the funds and how they are allocated in the organization.

For agencies that have engaged in a strategic planning process and are implementing that plan, the committee that developed it will continue to meet on a bi-monthly or quarterly basis to monitor its implementation and make necessary adjustments. Although this planning committee has oversight over the plan’s implementation, actually making the plan’s recommendations reality is the responsibility of the professional staff and the relevant committees of the board of directors. The committee chairpersons should have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish for the period of time covered by the strategic plan. Most plans cover a three- to five-year period because it is difficult to plan beyond that time, given most nonprofit agencies’ dependence on fluctuating government and philanthropic support. We are all familiar with the impact of the 2008 economic downturn on the voluntary sector; its takeaway message was not to stop planning but rather to plan modestly for the future.

In addition to these standing committees, most organizations have an executive committee that is responsible for coordinating the work of the agency’s officers and committee chairpersons. The executive committee generally meets between board meetings and confers and consults with the CEO and senior staff. It is also an excellent vehicle for the staff to use to test out ideas before going to the board. When an issue does come before the board, the president or board chair can share that the executive committee has already considered it and can let the board members know that the executive committee either supports or opposes what is being suggested.

This process of sharing needs to be handled diplomatically so the board does not feel that its only role is to rubber stamp the recommendations of the executive committee. The issue should be presented in a way that stimulates discussion and lets the board members know that their opinion is being sought and has impact. When presenting an issue, instead of saying to the board, “This is what we decided,” the board chair should say, “The executive committee has been discussing this issue, and we would like to know what you think as the board of directors.” Whether the issue may have been originally raised by a standing committee or was initiated by a discussion in the executive committee, it should be made clear to the board members that the purpose of bringing the issue to them is to elicit their opinions and to involve them in a real decision-making process.

Achieving an orchestrated committee process requires forethought and planning. Essentially before the program year starts, the people selected as chairperson have to think through what they would like to accomplish in the next year; specifically they may want to devise a general plan of the goals for each committee meeting. Most boards use the summer to plan the program year, which usually runs from September to June because it is difficult to have continuity during the summer months when people are away at different times.

At the beginning of the year each committee should discuss its agenda for the year, and based on that, one or two members and the chair can work on planning the discussion topics for each individual meeting. Assigning the task of developing the content of the meetings to the members builds in ownership that leads to increased investment and involvement in the work of the agency. The more the volunteer leaders have a sense of ownership in the organization, the more they will be ready and able to represent the agency in the community. This is important not only in advancing the agency’s standing but also in heightening the nonprofit’s profile and supporting its fundraising efforts to achieve financial sustainability. The stronger the organization’s committee process, the more the agency will be able to achieve its annual and long-term goals because it will have a dedicated group of volunteer leaders.

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