Here’s a success story about a hypothetical organization that examined its use of board committees.
The Donkey Therapy Centre had a highly engaged board, with everyone active in committees such as facilities, transportation, volunteer management, personnel or other committees among the twelve currently reporting to the board. Many also volunteered directly with the troubled youth who benefit from being with, and caring for, the calm and patient donkeys.
However, most of the board meetings seemed to accomplish very little because of in-depth discussions of issues raised by these many committees. The detailed issues of one committee were of minimal interest to everyone else, so the meetings were frustrating. And the new Executive Director already complained that she has no idea how to set performance objectives when the committee work and hers overlap so much.
A director who attended a short governance workshop came back with the notion that other boards had a very different committee structure. He asked the board to consider changing their use of committees, and enough were dissatisfied that they were more than ready to talk and find a solution to committee overload. In fact, several others were experiencing a different approach to committees in their other organizations, and were curious why this one hadn’t changed. They hear about Audit and Governance Committees everywhere else.
Luckily, they found a facilitator who asked the directors and the Executive Director “What Would a Better Committee Structure Make Possible?” before diving into specifics. Here’s the list they came up with of what the organization could do better:
- Set performance objectives for the Executive Director (ED) and evaluate ED.
- Clarify who is accountable for what and hold them accountable.
- Have more board time available for the strategic plan the funder wants created.
- Pay more attention to how resources are being used.
- Use board time on community and organization-wide issues.
- Understand what skills and knowledge they wanted in future board members.
- Recruit volunteers who wanted to work in the trenches and not be on the board.
- Support board operations.
- Committees working on areas within Executive Director authority should report to the ED.
- Committees working on areas within Executive Director authority should report to the board via the ED and not directly.
- Committees working on areas within Executive Director authority should report to the ED didn’t need to include board members and the ED should choose the members.
- The board needed a planning task force and maybe an ongoing committee later.
- Volunteers needed training in their roles and responsibilities.
- The board needed a support committee to help it operate effectively.
- The ED needed to think about adding a volunteer manager to the staff.
- The board should schedule a significant discussion on how it did financial oversight.
- The board needed to develop a performance appraisal system with and for the ED.
Of course, the facilitator congratulated them, and said “Yes, and how do you want to start?” Within a very short time, most board members voiced opinions on where their skills and knowledge could best be used, and committed to putting board work first. The new board support committee offered to complete the action plan.
Two directors said they preferred the committees that would now report to the ED, and wouldn’t be standing for re-election. The ED was overhead in a hallway conversation voicing relief and a renewed commitment to the organization. Two other directors started organizing a celebratory dinner because it was the first time that everyone leaving a Donkey Therapy Centre board meeting was smiling.
The chair stopped the facilitator as she was leaving, and thanked her yet again. He then said, “This was a great start—what should we do next?” He saw that his organization was ready for more and he could build on the momentum.
What would such a discussion make possible in your organization?
P.S. As you’ve likely guessed by now, this situation is not truly hypothetical. The names and details have been changed, but many organizations have had similar discussions. And I’ve never heard of one that regretted the time spent or the changes made as a result.