Board Cafe: Should Boards Have Committees, and if so, Which Ones?

Board Cafe

Board Committee Job Descriptions


Much of the decision-making work of many nonprofit boards is managed through committees. Committees can also serve as an important mechanism for actively involving all board members in the agency's work, and for board leadership to emerge. One long-time nonprofit CEO commented, "When a board member remarks to me that the board isn't engaging substantive enough issues, that's a sign to me that he or she hasn't been involved enough by their board committee. "

Do all boards need committees?

Most boards have committees because smaller groups can work more efficiently and less formally. (The number of committees should be limited so that individual workloads can be kept manageable¾ if board members sit on two or three committees, their time is spread too thin for the committees to be effective.) Committees can play a helpful role in building teamwork among larger boards. While they require more administrative management from the staff and board president, they also divvy up tasks and expertise efficiently.

Increasingly, some boards are choosing not to have any committees at all. In some cases, work can be more efficiently performed by individual board members working directly with staff (such as the treasurer working directly with staff on financial affairs). In other cases, an ad hoc committee or task force is formed to complete a particular task within a few months. Many board members feel more comfortable signing on to a temporary, ad hoc committee than to a permanent standing committee. In addition, assigning responsibilities to individuals rather than to committees may result in fewer meetings and more efficient work.

What is a board committee supposed to do?

The role of a board committee can be to prepare recommendations for the board, to decide that a matter doesn't need to be addressed by the full board, to advise staff and/or in some cases, to take on a significant project. For example, a detailed review of the cash flow situation may take place on the Finance Committee, which then recommends to the board that a line of credit be established. Although the full board is responsible for the decision they make, board members rely on the diligence and thoughtfulness of the Finance Committee in making the recommendation. In another example, the fundraising committee will develop a fundraising strategy which is brought to the board for approval. Anyone on the board can object, and the board can still reject the plan or ask the committee to revise it. Over time, committees gain the confidence of the board by doing their work well.

Can people other than board members serve on committees?

In some organizations, board committees are comprised only of board members. In other organizations, committees have both board members and non-board members. For example, a Latino organization may have a site relocation committee comprised equally of board members (who are all Latino) and non-board members (some of whom are Latino and some of whom are not). Having non-board members on committees invites specialized expertise, from people who may not have time to serve on the board, or individuals who may be inappropriate for full board membership.

Original publication date: 1/24/1999

© 1999 CompassPoint Nonprofit Services