The Secret of A Successful Committee Process: The Lay Leader – Staff Relationship

A great deal has been said about the work of the committees of the Board of Directors and the important contribution the committees make to the success of the organization. How can a director of a non-profit organization and the chair of the board insure the success of the committees’ functioning? One of the best ways is to invest in the development and assignment of the appropriate professional staff members to work with the chairpersons of the committees.

The role of the professional staff person in non-profit organizations is not only to fulfill his/her responsibilities in delivering services or in administration of the organization but is also staffing the committees of the board. Too few organizations emphasize the importance of the staff role in working with lay leadership and facilitating the important work of the board committees. In order to provide the necessary support and to encourage volunteer leaders to develop their skills and abilities, the professionals need training and supervision.

It is a “two way street” so to speak, the professionals need to be trained and educated in how to work with lay leaders and the volunteer leaders need to know they have the appropriate staff support. It is not just a matter of sending out notices prior to the meetings and minutes after the meetings. The staff person can often guide the lay chairman in how to introduce a subject for discussion, how to facilitate the discussion, and how to ameliorate strong differences of opinion in order to attain consensus among the members.

It is often assumed that people have an innate ability to engage committee members so that they feel their participation is valued and worthwhile, but there is nothing further from the reality when you work with people, in general, and volunteers, in particular. This is important for both the volunteer leader and the professional in understanding their respective roles and their being able to form a strong working relationship with each other. They must have similar expectations of their working relationship and their roles and responsibilities with the committee.

The professional staff member and the chairperson have to clarify their relationship to facilitate their working together both prior to and during committee meetings. The staff person assists in building the agenda and in balancing the content of meeting between reporting, discussion and decision-making so there is a sense of consensus among the members. Occasionally, the chairperson has to contend with a difficult member who tends to speak too long and does not allow for other members to share their thinking and participate in the discussion. In order to develop a positive atmosphere the staff member provides guidance and strengthens the lay leader’s skills in managing the group process in the meeting.

The rhythm of the lay-professional relationship is also significant and it is a good idea for them to have a discussion prior to a committee meeting to plan out the agenda and to talk after the meeting so they can analyze what happened. A “postmortem” provides an opportunity to emphasize the best parts of the process and to suggest what might not be repeated in future meetings. In addition it is an opportunity to discuss how the meeting notes or minutes can be used to foster the forward movement of the committee and its work on behalf of the organization.

The stronger the committee process and the more positive members feel about their involvement the more involved people will be in the organization and ultimately it will have a positive impact on the board of directors. The members will value the time they volunteer and they will be more committed to the organization. Thus, it is important to invest time and energy in building the professional staff and the lay leadership and this will strengthen the board of directors and the functioning of the non-profit organization’s governance processes.

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